Dust from cutting concrete

Is Silica Dust the next Asbestos?

Health and safety on building sites has come under the spotlight as industry experts suggest more should be done to combat silica dust hazards in the workplace.

Dubbed the “next asbestos”, silica dust exposure has the potential to become a serious health problem, according to the UK’s best-known home improvement expert, TV presenter Tommy Walsh.

Dust from cutting concrete
© VanoVasaio / Shutterstock

The celebrity builder and Ground Force star says we must act now to avoid the “next asbestos crisis” in the UK. Silica is a key component of many materials found in the construction industry such as tiles, concrete, bricks and mortar.

Walsh’s comments followed a report by the Health and Safety Executive that silica dust causes the lung cancer deaths of almost 800 people a year.


What is silicosis?

Now a new report suggests it’s a “matter of urgency” to protect workers from silicosis – a long-term lung disease caused by inhaling respirable crystalline silica dust, created when stone and bricks are drilled, fractured or cut.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Respiratory Health has published a series of recommendations in its latest 29-page report on the lung disease. Released in February 2023, this is a follow-up to the group’s earlier recommendations, made in 2020.

While asbestos danger is a recognised hazard that has received plenty of publicity over the years, silicosis is far less well known in comparison. MPs and peers are urging the HSE to take “active steps” to monitor workplace safety in relation to silica dust exposure.

Walsh has echoed the recommendations and says the issue of air quality on building sites should be of national concern. Data shows 81% of people regularly exposed to silica dust are construction workers. He views silica dust in the same way as asbestos.

He first became aware of the dangers around five years ago, in relation to the disposal of plasterboard. However, he has not heard the issues being discussed on building sites in connection with greater safety measures, despite occupational silicosis being the world’s most common chronic lung disease.


How dangerous is respirable crystalline silica?

Respirable crystalline silica has been cited as the biggest risk to construction workers after asbestos. An estimated 50,000 employees worldwide are regularly exposed to silica dust.

In the UK, there are 12,000 deaths per year from inhaling hazardous dusts, including silica, in the workplace. This compares with 142 deaths due to workplace accidents in the same period.

The workplace exposure limit for silica dust is 0.1 mg per cubic metre of space over an eight-hour timespan. However, it’s generally accepted that exposure should be as low as possible and well below the exposure limit when practical.

The exposure limit can be exceeded under certain circumstances, as long as it’s for only a short time. For example, if an employee has worked in a concentration of 0.2 mg per cubic metre for four hours, they have reached their daily limit and shouldn’t have any further exposure in the eight-hour period.


What are the causes, symptoms and treatment of silicosis?

Silicosis is a type of lung disease known as a pulmonary fibrosis. Caused by breathing in tiny particles of silica dust, a mineral found in quartz, sand and many other types of rock; workers exposed to the dust mainly work in the construction and mining industries.

Over time, exposure to the silica particles will cause scarring in the lungs. This can impair your ability to breathe. In the early stages, the symptoms are milder. They can include coughing and a shortness of breath.

As the scarring increases, the cough will slowly worsen. An abnormal chest x-ray can point to silicosis. If the lung scarring is very severe due to prolonged exposure over many years, bronchitis-like symptoms can develop. These can include a persistent cough, difficulties in breathing, general shortness of breath, fatigue, weakness, swollen legs, night fever and a blue tinge to the lips in severe cases.

Silicosis is incurable and the treatment can only manage symptoms. Once the disease has been diagnosed, a treatment plan will be devised, based on the degree of lung damage. This can include using a bronchodilator to decrease inflammation of the air tubes and supplemental oxygen to help get more air into the lungs when needed. As the disease progresses, oxygen may be required constantly.

Some patients attend a pulmonary rehabilitation exercise programme designed to help them maintain activity levels. In extremely severe cases, sufferers may be referred to a lung transplant specialist.


How can an employer reduce the risk of silicosis?

Many employers use dust extraction solutions as a method of reducing the risk to staff when working with materials that produce silica dust.

AirBench, the UK’s leading range of downdraught benches, solves dust, fume and mist extraction problems at work. For dust extraction applications, our systems can help your business to comply with COSHH.

Protect your employees and products using our effective dust collection systems for the workplace, which work with no operator intervention. Thanks to our wide range of filtration options and system designs, we can produce a solution to suit almost any processes.

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