How to stop silica becoming the new asbestos

Posted: 05 October 2020

The dangers of asbestos have long been known, although its use was not entirely banned in the UK until 1999. It became apparent over time that asbestos was extremely harmful to humans and that even now, there are over 5,000 asbestos-related disease deaths per year in the UK, of which around half are from the cancer mesothelioma1.

Now there are concerns that silicosis could be the next mesothelioma. Silicosis is a long-term lung disease caused by exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) which is a substance found in most rocks, sands and clays, products such as bricks and concrete, and as filler in some plastics. Debilitating and irreversible, it can lead to respiratory failure but also increases the risk of other serious conditions including lung cancer, heart failure and kidney disease. 

Data from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) shows the number of annual silicosis-related deaths in the UK to be relatively low, with around 10 to 20 deaths per year over the last decade.2 However, as the HSE maintains, the current available data sources for silicosis are ‘likely to substantially underestimate the annual incidence’ of this disease.  There are concerns the scale of the problem is masked behind other conditions, with around 800 lung cancer deaths per year linked to past exposures to silica.3

The dangers of exposure to RCS are well known. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) specify a workplace exposure limit (WEL) of 0.1mg/m³ averaged over eight hours.4

Respirable crystalline silica particles are produced during many work tasks, including sandblasting, mining, quarrying, brick cutting, foundry work, stone working, ceramic manufacture and construction activities.

handheld tool

Risk management advice

Construction dust is not just a nuisance – regular and long-term exposure can cause life-changing lung diseases.

Robust risk management is essential, using the assess, control, review approach set out in the COSHH Regulations. Measures to reduce exposure will vary but could include using a less powerful tool, for instance a block splitter rather than a cut-off saw; using different materials; and ordering pre-cut materials.

Where exposure cannot be avoided, steps must be taken to control the risk. Water and on-tool extraction can minimise the dust in the air, while respiratory protective equipment, where fitted and worn correctly, can be a valuable last line of protection.

 Man with PPE

In March 2020, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Respiratory Health produced a report urging the Government to take a tougher stance on regulations regarding exposure to silica. The report contained a number of recommendations, including halving the WEL for RCS to 0.05mg/m3; developing and implementing a targeted industry awareness campaign for those at risk of developing silicosis; and introducing an NHS screening programme for those exposed to RCS.

These measures will likely be welcomed by many construction workers, whilst the full impact of exposure to RCS continues to reveal itself longer-term.

For more information on silicosis and other respiratory diseases, visit our Allianz Risk Management website

Andy Miller
Risk Control Manager
Allianz Insurance plc

1 Health and Safety Executive. Asbestos-related disease statistics in Great Britain, 2019

2 Health and Safety Executive. Silicosis and coal workers’ pneumoconiosis statistics in Great Britain, 2019.

3 Ibid.

4 Health and Safety Executive. EH40/2005 Workplace exposure limits (Fourth Edition 2020). p.19.