Silicosis must be stopped says BOHS
09 September 2015
BOHS has urged the construction industry to take decisive action to stop workers being exposed to silica dust, following the release by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) of powerful new video testimony from a silicosis sufferer.
During the video footage, Terry, a former stone mason who is now suffering from the debilitating lung disease silicosis, tells his compelling story to Dr David Fishwick, Chief Medical Officer at the Health and Safety Laboratory.
Terry describes how, despite years of fitness training and involvement in karate at the highest level, he has been left facing silicosis, with devastating personal effects, when he should have been in the prime of his life.
In the video, Terry describes "intense” work with stone dust in a small area, creating the conditions, in his own words, for "disaster”.
Dr Fishwick says it is clear from the description of Terry’s working life that he has been exposed to significant amounts of stone dust, particularly in the last few years of his working life where he worked with sandstone containing 90% crystalline silica.
Responding to the release of the video and in support of its Breathe Freely campaign for the prevention of occupational lung disease in the construction industry, BOHS has shared the following key facts and figures about silicosis:
- Recognised since ancient times, silicosis is one of the oldest, yet most debilitating, occupational diseases and is caused by exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) - tiny dust particles which can be breathed into the deepest regions of the lung where they can cause serious damage
- Today, the disease represents one of the most important health risks facing construction workers, with the tiny particles of crystalline silica produced during many common construction activities, such as cutting, blasting or drilling of granite, sandstone, slate, brick or concrete
- Over 500 workers are believed to die from exposure to silica dust every year in the UK construction industry
- It usually takes many years of exposure to silica dust before silicosis symptoms start but regular, repeated exposure to RCS can lead to silicosis, as well as lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) such as bronchitis and emphysema
- The UK has an RCS standard which requires that exposure must be below the level of 0.1 milligrams of respirable dust per cubic metre, averaged over eight hours, but it is believed there is widespread non-compliance with the standard and even this limit is not "safe” - an estimated 2.5% of workers exposed to this concentration for only 15 years go on to develop silicosis.
In a statement, the Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection appealed for decisive action on silicosis in the construction industry.
Mike Slater, a Chartered Occupational Hygienist and the immediate past President of BOHS, said: "We are concerned that the respirable crystalline silica standard is not being adhered to within industry and as a result workers are being exposed to dangerous levels of RCS. There needs to be greater awareness that for most of the common operations where workers are at risk from exposure to silica, there are control measures available that are usually relatively straight forward to implement. For example, the simple fitting of water suppression or extraction systems to tools can make all the difference, as can different work processes, such as vacuuming instead of dry sweeping.”
He added, "Six months into our Breathe Freely campaign, we have been absolutely delighted with the level of support the initiative has received. Now, we want the momentum generated by Breathe Freely to translate into real action in the construction sector, to stop the incurable but entirely preventable disease of silicosis.”