Stone masonry is one of the oldest trades in history, but is now also one of the modern-day workplace sectors most under scrutiny, as experts warn that silicosis could become the new asbestos.
Silicosis is a long-term work-related lung disease to which anyone working with silica – naturally occurring in materials such as stone, concrete, brick, glass, sandstone, granite and shale – may be susceptible to, if the risks are not properly controlled. Whilst some sufferers have been exposed to Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS) over the course of 10-20 years, it is perfectly possible to suffer from silicosis after just a few months of heavy exposure to RCS.
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has been warning about silicosis for some time, and the limit of exposure to RCS is controlled by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH). However, it is now becoming apparent that some cases of silicosis could be missed during health screening, or be misdiagnosed as another condition.
We are now witnessing a proliferation of personal injury lawyers offering to take up silicosis cases and promising to seek compensation for what is a debilitating and irreversible condition. This is not surprising. In the US, the permissible exposure limit to RCS has been cut by half; in South Africa, miners have sued their employers. Such action overseas can only serve to encourage law suits in the UK.
For employers running construction, masonry, foundry, glass manufacturing, ceramics, quarrying or other businesses generating dusts that could contain RCS, these should be worrying times. With the huge public outcry over fracking in the UK, those in the shale gas sector should also sit up and take note of their responsibility to control the risks promoting silicosis.
Last, but not least, is the exposure to RCS in the manufacturing sector, where silica is used in a wide variety of processes and where possible exposure to fines and law suits also exists. The same attitude to risk management processes will need to be adopted.
In February 2016, the HSE carried out checks at 60 stone industry businesses in the south, with these including monumental masons, worktop manufacturers and stonemasons. It found serious breaches of health and safety in over half of the businesses inspected, which led to the issuing of 4 Prohibition Notices and 54 Improvement Notices.
With regard to these HSE checks, HSE Inspector, Tahir Mortuza, said: “HSE intends to visit more stone work businesses in the future to ensure that health and safety is adequately managed. Business owners should review their processes and the materials they use whilst thinking about what might cause harm and whether they are doing enough to protect workers.
Once the risks have been identified, businesses need to decide how best to control them, so they can put the appropriate measures in place. A good starting point is to look at RCS, as it is one of the greatest risks for businesses engaged in stonework, as found in this inspection campaign.”
The need for strong risk management with regard to silicosis has never been more apparent. Construction firms and other businesses must ensure they comply with the COSHH limit and should also do all they can to suppress dust in the workplace: vacuum cleaning or wet sweeping rather than using dry brushes, keeping equipment clean, having proper wash-down facilities for workers and safe storage for contaminated clothes, and ensuring extraction systems are adequate and working correctly.
There is a lot to think about with RCS and it may be that contacting a professional risk manager and getting the right procedures in place is paramount for your business, if you are struggling to meet your legal responsibilities. If you need assistance with your risk control, procedures or documentation, please get in touch with us and ensure that you protect not just your workers, but the future of your business too.