Is silica the next asbestos?
B&CE recently completed a joint inquiry with the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Respiratory Health into silicosis in the construction industry. The resulting report, ‘Silica – the next asbestos?’, explores the risk of silica exposure to construction workers and the implications for policy makers.
B&CE was established back in 1942 as a not for profit, originally to provide a national holiday pay scheme for construction workers. Since then, we’ve created additional financial products, including The People’s Pension, which has nearly five million members. We remain a not for profit, owned by construction employers and trade unions, and in 2016 we acquired Constructing Better Health, part of our commitment to help improve health in the industry.
Why did B&CE embark on this inquiry?
Ill health in construction is a persistent problem. Although great strides have been made in safety over the past 40 years since the Health & Safety at Work Act, health has not been given equal weight. Construction workers are still 100 times more likely to die from a preventable occupational disease than from an accident. Dust is a particular issue – the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) figures tell us that approximately 12,000 deaths in the industry each year are linked to exposure to dust and chemicals. We also know that over two million working days are lost per year due to illness caused or made worse by jobs in construction.
We first approached the All Party Group for Respiratory Health early last year to discuss a range of respiratory conditions prevalent in the sector. The APPG, chaired by Jim Shannon MP, was brought together to raise awareness of the importance of respiratory health and to promote effective policy for improving treatments and outcomes. Jim’s office helped us with House of Commons Library research, which revealed that silicosis and the dangers of respirable crystalline silica, or RCS, had not been considered in depth by parliamentarians for several years. RCS presents an ongoing threat; as the HSE pointed out in their subsequent evidence, exposure to it forms the biggest risk to construction workers after asbestos.
Happily, the APPG agreed that silicosis did indeed warrant closer attention.
What we discovered
B&CE and the APPG launched the inquiry last July, calling for evidence from a wide range of stakeholders including clinicians, academics, industry federations, unions, the HSE, occupational health bodies and campaigners.
The evidence we received revealed that:
- silicosis is the most common chronic occupational lung disease in the world;
- the UK lags behind other developed nations in terms of workplace exposure limits to RCS; and
- awareness of the risks is low amongst both construction workers and employers.
We also discovered that the numbers don’t reveal the true picture. HSE figures from 2005 suggest that over 500 workers died from silicosis that year, but the condition increases the likelihood of developing a range of other illnesses (including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, lung cancer, kidney disease and arthritis). However, it is clear that around 600,000 UK workers are exposed to RCS annually.
Two key developments
Two important developments happened hot on the heels of the inquiry launch:
- Unite the Union (who also provided evidence) launched an online silica register for workers to document their exposure to RCS; and
- Stonemasons in Australia launched a class action against stone worktop manufacturers, prompting the federal government to establish a National Dust Disease Taskforce.
As we were putting the final touches to the report, RCS was reclassified as a carcinogen when generated as part of a work process – this ticked off one of our recommendations before we’d finished drafting!
The report makes 10 recommendations to Government, including:
- calling for silicosis to be included as a ‘reportable condition’ under existing regulations
- developing a targeted industry awareness programme
- introducing a screening programme for those exposed to RCS
- lowering the workplace exposure limit to bring RCS into line with other developed nations.
B&CE launched the report at a parliamentary reception hosted by Jim Shannon MP. Jim said, ‘The inquiry has given us real insights into the outstanding work carried out in the construction industry and the hazards that are too often part of everyday life for those who work within it. We hope that the outcomes of the report will assist the Health and Safety Executive, the Government and the construction industry to protect its workforce from preventable injury and illnesses.’
Ultimately, the aim is to start a long-overdue conversation among and between Government, Parliament, health bodies and the construction industry about how to tackle this entirely preventable, often fatal, condition. Through it, we’re calling on the Government to take action to prevent ‘the next asbestos’ from taking more lives in the UK.