Exposure to workplace dust and fumes can significantly increase the risk of lung cancer for employees, with the construction industry having the worst record, according to new research.
More construction workers are killed by occupational cancer than by accidents at work, according to the Health and Safety Executive’s report, Occupational Cancer Statistics in Great Britain 2023. Certain types of dust and fumes carry a higher risk than others, with exposure to silica dust and asbestos causing most instances of lung disease in the workplace.
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What causes lung cancer?
Accounting for 70% of all cases in the UK; smoking causes most cases of lung cancer in society, according to data from the NHS. However, someone who has never smoked can also fall victim to the disease, as exposure to certain hazardous substances in industry can increase the risks.
As well as silica dust and asbestos, the other harmful substances include coal and coke fumes, nickel, beryllium, cadmium, arsenic and diesel fumes. Exposure to any of these substances over several years makes the risks even greater.
What is silicosis?
Attributed to inhaling crystalline silica dust in the workplace over a period of several years; lung disease caused by silica dust is known as silicosis.
Working with natural materials such as rock, stone, clay and sand creates a fine dust that employees are prone to inhaling unless stringent safety procedures are followed.
After entering the lungs, silica dust causes inflammation and swelling, eventually leading to scarred and hardened tissue, known as fibrosis. Once the lung tissue has been scarred, it is no longer able to function in a healthily.
The disease can take several years to develop. In fact, an employee who has worked with silica dust may not notice any adverse effects at all until after they have retired and even when a person is no longer exposed to the dust, unfortunately the symptoms can continue to worsen.
The highest risk of developing silicosis is among people who have worked with silica dust for between ten and 20 years, although it can begin even after a relatively short exposure of five years. Where there is very heavy exposure to dust, you can develop lung disease after only a few months.
Someone with silicosis is likely to suffer a persistent cough, weakness, shortness of breath and general tiredness. Over time, the main symptoms usually get more severe and can be extremely debilitating, leaving the person confined to their home and bed.
Which industries have the highest risk?
Employees working in the construction and demolition sector are more likely to develop lung cancer and other lung diseases, because they have the highest exposure to paving materials and concrete.
Stone cutting and stone masonry industries are also at a high risk, particularly if working with sandstone.
Other susceptible industries include worktop manufacturing, ceramics, pottery, glass manufacturing, quarrying, mining and sand blasting.
A study by the HSE looked back at data over the past 50 years, studying the number of employees and former employees who had been diagnosed with occupational cancer. The research concluded around 8,000 deaths from cancer, plus an additional 13,600 people who registered as having cancer, were linked to an industry where they had suffered exposure to dust and fumes from hazardous substances and materials.
How can employers protect the workforce?
Workplace safety is monitored by the HSE under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002. The law stipulates employers must protect their workforce from harmful substances.
Companies must carry out a risk assessment to identify and assess the risks and put measures in place to control them. AirBench’s dust and fume extraction systems can help to protect staff against the risks of exposure.
As the UK’s leading manufacturer of downdraught benches and cross draught extraction systems, we can actively help businesses in many sectors to solve their dust extraction and fume extraction problems.