The UK government’s workplace health and safety regulator has been accused of leaving workers at double jeopardy from cancer-causing, lung scarring silica.
‘A line in the sand’, a report in the workers’ safety magazine Hazards criticises the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for resisting a union-backed call for it to halve the current exposure limit for the common workplace dust. And it says the government-imposed, hands-off, HSE enforcement policy combined with swingeing resource cuts mean even the current “deadly” standard is not being enforced effectively.
Most of the highest risk industries for silica exposure – brick, cement, ceramics, concrete products, glass, mineral industries and quarries - are no longer subject to any unannounced inspections. And figures obtained by Hazards on the outcome of this summer’s HSE inspection blitz in construction - one of a short list of industries still subject to preventive HSE oversight - found silica exposure was the runaway top health risk identified, topping manual handling, noise, vibration, asbestos and all other hazardous exposures.
The report cites the US safety watchdog OSHA which, putting its case for a halving of its 0.1mg/m³ standard – a standard it shares with the UK – reported that at the current standard, for lung cancer “the excess lifetime risk to workers exposed over a working life is between 13 and 60 deaths per 1,000 workers.” Other silica-related conditions, including silicosis, obstructive lung diseases and kidney disease, more than treble this toll, which OSHA says would be markedly lower at the tighter standard.
The Hazards report notes assumptions about workplace conditions inevitably improving over time, as knowledge and technology advances, don’t work so well for silica. Greater use of face masks, respirators and other control technology coincided with mechanisation, increasing the pace of work and volumes of dust produced.
‘Dust to dust: Deadly silica standard is killing UK workers’, part one of the Hazards investigation published earlier this year, dismisses claims by HSE that it is not technically feasible to measure dust levels at a tighter standard. The US regulator OSHA has concluded it is perfectly possible to monitor and enforce a more protective standard, Hazards notes, while some jurisdictions like British Columbia in Canada already operate to a standard a quarter the current UK limit.