The silent tragedy of silica dust and the need for immediate action

One thousand deaths a year among workers deserves a lot more attention

Construction workers

Today in the House of Lords I have an oral question – starting a short debate – on a workplace safety issue – silicosis – that has received surprisingly little parliamentary attention in the UK, despite Australia having just taken a big step forward in tackling it, and the All Party Parliamentary Group for Respiratory Health last year producing a report on the issue. (You can watch it live from about 2.45pm.)

To start at the beginning: Silica is a natural substance found in stone, rocks, sand, clay and construction materials like cement and bricks. Working on these materials, cutting them, engraving, and sanding them down releases small airborne particles of airborne silica dust called Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS). This dust can penetrate human lungs and causes a host of conditions, many of which are extremely debilitating and some life-threatening. These include lung infections, bronchitis, obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer. It also increases the risk of acute infections like tuberculosis. Medically, little or nothing can be done to reverse the damage.

Despite the real dangers of this material, just over half a million workers are exposed to silica each year in the UK. Around 1,000 workers die each year as a result – about the equivalent toll were two jumbo jets to crash mid air. Imagine the safety outcry there would be were that tragedy to happen, yet the quiet, hidden tragedy of silicosis is not being even noticed.

And this figure also does not account for thousands more who are left with long-term debilitating lung problems that severely impair the quality of their life. Those working as stoneworkers, construction workers, engineers, and in agriculture are at the highest risk .

What is the UK doing to address this problem?

Unlike asbestos, there is no specific law relating to the risk of silica dust, despite it being at least as lethal as asbestos. According to the advocacy group, Hazards, there are two main existing pieces of legislation that relate to silica exposure. First is the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974), which requires employers to ensure the physical and mental health of workers and others impacted by their work activities or in their working environment.

Second, the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) demands that employers lower RSC exposure among their employees  “as reasonably practicable.” Workplaces are required to take a number of steps, such as educating employees about the risks of silica dust exposure, routinely monitoring for levels of silica dust in the air, and lowering levels through water spray systems and other mechanisms. Workers are also meant to wear equipment to prevent inhalation, such as dust masks. However, studies have shown that the level of silica dust remains exceedingly high across various workplaces in Europe, which calls into question how effective these measures are.

The UK should learn from other countries

Other countries have taken firmer action than the UK to prevent deaths and sickness from silica. Last year, Australia became the first country to ban engineered stone from being imported, manufactured, or used in Australia. This decision was made after it was found that 1 in 4 stone masons have fallen ill in Australia after exposure to silica in engineered stone. The first case was identified in Australia in 2015.

The US national Safety Regulator – OSHA – is also making efforts to improve protection for engineered stoneworkers. For example, they are increasing the frequency of federal inspections in stoneworking locations to monitor silica levels. A recent study revealed that US migrant workers in California are at disproportionate risk of becoming ill from silica due to being outnumbered in stonework sectors. In response, OSHA has said that it will attempt to address lack of awareness about the dangers of silica among these workers.

Summary and Recommendations

Hazards have called for a total ban on engineered stone in the UK to minimise the risk of death caused by silica dust. Their recommendations also include better monitoring systems in the workplace by assessing whether technology and data are effective enough to reduce silica levels; greater awareness of the dangers of silica among workers by teaching about its risks during apprenticeships and through safety campaigns in workplaces; and better health surveillance by improving GP records so that there is clearer data on occupational history and connect this with deaths certificates so that we are able to grasp the full scale of the issue. 

Health and safety conditions in UK workplaces are declining, with the Health and Safety Executive failing to investigate even serious incidents, and concern particularly about the construction sector, which is responsible for around 10 per cent of GDP but a third of all workplace deaths.

But those sudden, tragic events are only the tip of an iceberg of workplace injury that’s certainly a factor in the high levels of ill health in the working-age population. Yet it gets little attention, a broader issue I reflected on recently for Public Sector Focus. Today, I’ll be taking a small step towards giving it more.

Natalie Bennett is a Green Party member of the House of Lords. She was leader of the Green Party of England and Wales from 2012-16.

This article was written with King’s College intern Jennifer Howe

Image credit: Department of Business, Innovation and Skills

Comments are closed.