UK Workers’ Risk and Responsibility to Silica Exposure

Every day, thousands of workers in a variety of occupations are exposed to silica without truly comprehending the risks. Silica, the second most prevalent element after oxygen, is found in most rocks, sand, soil, granite, and in products such as bricks and concrete. Because silica is so widespread, it’s easy to forget the toxicity of the element.

Silica can be deadly when it is inhaled into the lungs. Every year in the United Kingdom, thousands of workers become ill and hundreds die due to inhaling silica dust, also known as respirable crystalline silica (RCS). Construction workers are at the forefront of these hazardous environments and are at risk of developing silicosis (a chronic lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust), lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and kidney disease if they continue breathing this dust.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) released the 2014/2015 statistics which calculated approximately 13,000 deaths each year from a work-related lung disease and cancer attributed to past exposure. After asbestos, silica is the largest risk to construction workers for occupational disease. It’s also important to note that most of these diseases take many years to develop, meaning many of these deaths are due to exposures that happened years or decades earlier.

Although silica exposure is deadly, it is 100% preventable. The key to preventing silicosis and other diseases caused by silica is to keep dust out of the air. Simply adding water to the dust prior to it becoming airborne is a simple, yet highly effective dust control. Another dust control method is to use a dust collection system (such as a vacuum) along with the piece of equipment that produces dust.

Managing health risks is a crucial step in maintaining a healthy workforce. The HSE has outlined key steps in managing risks associated with hazards. They are Assess, Control, and Review and can be accessed via the HSE website here.

UK employers must comply with The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH). Within the regulations, there are specific needs that must be met to comply. Employees are expected to understand the risks associated from silica, and how to avoid them.

There are also other controls that should be maintained when dealing with the potential for silica dust. Workers should be vigilant and maintain some fundamental steps such as:

  • Maintaining proper personal hygiene
  • Wearing protective clothing
  • Utilising proper respiratory protection
  • Training workers on work operations that result in exposure to silica
  • Keeping records of silica exposure