The APPG and B&CE have conducted an inquiry into silicosis in the construction industry.
9th March 2020
The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Respiratory Health and the B&CE have worked together to complete an inquiry into silicosis in the construction industry. The aim is to promote effective policies and start a long-overdue conversation between government, parliament, health bodies and the construction industry about how to tackle silicosis, the most common chronic occupational lung disease in the world.
The RVT Group’s mission is to protect the long-term health of workers on site, so we whole-heartedly support and feel passionate about this matter. RVT’s Directors contributed to the research and attended the Parliamentary Reception on 4th March where the research report was launched.
What is silica and the hazards for site workers?
Silica is a natural substance found in most stone-based construction materials. Drilling, grinding, cutting and polishing these materials creates silica dust that is fine enough to get deep into the lungs. Breathing in silica dust can cause silicosis, lung cancer and other serious respiratory diseases. Click here to read RVT’s Silica Dust whitepaper.
Silica inquiry findings
The APPG and the B&CE’s inquiry into silicosis and its impact on construction workers revealed there is currently no national screening programme or compulsory register of silicosis. The report suggests there is a concerning widespread lack of understanding about the hazards to health that are presented when exposed to silica dust. Silica can often be perceived as low risk to health because it does not have an immediate impact on a person’s wellbeing. However, it’s evident that silica has the same damaging effects as asbestos when breathed in regularly over a long period of time.
Carol Sanders, Health Scientist at Bam Nuttall, cites data that suggests there are around 600,000 site workers exposed to silica. If all are working within the current WEL, it estimates the exposure-risk to be around 180,000 silicosis cases over a 45-year working lifetime. The scale of the problem is currently unknown, but over 2.2 million workers could be at risk in the construction industry, and it is believed 500 UK construction workers die each year from silicosis.
As a result of these findings, recommendations have been made to prevent silicosis in site workers.
Recommendations following the inquiry
Reduce the workplace exposure limit
The report recommends that the workplace exposure limit (WEL) for Silica in the UK should be reduced from 0.1mg/m³ to 0.05mg/m³ in line with the 2003 suggested exposure standard from the Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure Limits, and statutory monitoring requirements need to be introduced to ensure workers are not exposed above that limit. Carol Sanders, Health Scientist at Bam Nuttall, quotes “If the workplace exposure levels were to be reduced to 0.05mg/m³, it would prevent 200 deaths between now and 2060”.
Introduce new health and safety regulations
Another key point in the report is the Government should introduce new health and safety regulations specifically relating to the control of respirable crystalline silica (RCS), to bring it into line with asbestos. HSE states that the current regulatory framework is adequate, but they also acknowledge that compliance is low. Many respondents suggest this is because the HSE is underfunded to provide the enforcement that it needs. Carol Sanders, Health Scientist at Bam Nuttall, quotes HSE-funded research which shows that compliance rates are estimated to be 33%. Carol estimates that if the level of compliance were to be raised to 90% it would save 700 lives.
Launch a National Silicosis Register
The inquiry report advises that silicosis should be included as a reportable condition under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases, and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (2013) for those who are still at work and exposed, and call on Government to similarly amend the Health Protection (Notification) Regulations 2010 to make silicosis notifiable through Public Health England, thereby creating a compulsory national silicosis register. This could help with the identification of cases and contribute to increased awareness by health professionals.
Compulsory breathing equipment, dust extraction and on-site inspections
It is also recommended that the HSE introduces compulsory requirements for the use of respiratory PPE, enclosures for cutting, extraction hoods, local exhaust ventilation (LEV), water suppression and on-tool extraction. RVT Group commented that while there is a range of extractors available, there is little understanding of how to use them to reduce exposure to dust.
The report also urges that HSE resources are increased to boost the volume of on-site inspections and compliance levels of building contractors of all sizes. The HSE reports that dust extraction is currently being reported by only 22% of respondents.
Awareness campaign for better prevention, diagnosis and treatment
The report suggests the launch of a targeted industry awareness campaign aimed at those at risk of developing silicosis. BOHS suggest that when workers are given information about exposure and the appropriate control measures to take, silica exposure can drop by 20-30%. Further suggestions are to include silica dust exposure awareness in public sector projects, updated HSE guidance, compulsory health surveillance or information built into existing training courses.
NHS Screening Programme
Another recommendation in the report is a new screening programme to run in conjunction with occupational health services, provided that all parties can input data and follow the same guidelines for onward referral of suspected silicosis cases. Identifying workers with early disease will help gain accurate data on the number of cases to better understand the scale of the problem and enable treatment to reduce symptoms and interventions to improve long term health.
Occupational Health Records
The report recommends that a mechanism is introduced whereby workers can hold their own occupational health records so that the relationship between symptoms and exposures is considered. It also proposes that occupational health services are introduced into GP surgeries to allow for occupational histories to be taken where work-related ill health is suspected.
A dusty career: Gordon Sommerville
Gordon Sommerville, who worked amongst silica dust for over 40 years, gives insight into what extensive exposure can have on a person’s health.
1970’s: When Gordon started his career, he was working for a stone and asbestos removals company. Respirators and coveralls were provided for workers in the asbestos division, but not for the stone division. Dust was not taken seriously by the site workers or the employer and dust was regularly an inch deep on the floor.
1980’s – 1990’s: Fast forward a couple of decades and power tools had become a necessity in the construction industry. Gordon recalls how his colleagues would spend days on end cutting into walls with angle grinders with no respiratory protection whatsoever.
1990 – 2000:People started to get ill and die from dust related illness in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, many workers in the stone industry knew of at least one colleague who had become ill or died due to a disease caused by dust.
2020: Today, colleges teach stoneworkers of the dangers, the HSE runs awareness campaigns and larger companies will supply employees with respiratory protection. However, the danger of dust has not filtered through to most and ignorance is still the major cause of dust diseases.
Specialist help and support
If you are struggling with dust control on site, RVT Group can offer a free consultation and site assessment with a fully qualified BOHS specialist who can give best practice advice and recommend a fully compliant solution.
Call us on 0808 178 3286 to book your free site visit or click here for more dust control information.
RVT also offer a wealth of free educational resources, click here to see what is available.