The UK safety regulator the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is being urged to halve the workplace exposure limit for silica dust, a move it says will save 4,000 lives a year.
The call, which is backed by unions and the national Hazards Campaign, comes in a new ‘Choked’ report from Hazards magazine.
The report presents evidence for cutting the current UK legal limit of 0.1 mg/m3 for respirable crystalline silica to no more than 0.05 mg/m3, a move the report says would dramatically reduce the incidence of the lung scarring occupational disease silicosis, lung cancer, autoimmune diseases and other silica-related conditions.
Hazards reviewed the international scientific literature and internal HSE documents to calculate the annual excess silica-related death toll resulting from HSE’s repeat refusal to switch to and enforce the tighter standard, instead sticking with a level it admits comes with “significant risks”.
The report notes: “In the UK, in a display of breathtaking complacency, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is sticking to its guns – a strategy set to choke the life out of another generation of workers.”
It reveals that HSE’s own internal reports estimate the silicosis risk for workers is six times higher at the current HSE limit of 0.1 mg/m3, calculated at 30 cases per 100 workers exposed compared to just five per 100 at the tighter 0.05 mg/m3 standard. The United States and a number of other jurisdictions already work to the safer standard.
The campaign is asking supporters inside and outside the UK to send an online postcard to Sarah Albon, the new chief executive of the HSE. Over 600,000 workers in the UK are regularly exposed to silica at work which is created when cutting, grinding drilling or polishing, natural substances such as rocks and sand and is a major constituent in bricks, tiles and concrete and materials.
At least one-in-five workers in these jobs – and in some like stonemasonry and construction, possibly half – are exposed at or above the current deadly UK limit.
HSE has a worrying track record on silica. On 1 January 1992, under pressure from the quarrying industry, HSE introduced a weaker permissible exposure standard for crystalline silica of 0.4mg/m3.
The UK only reverted to the 0.1mg/m3 standard in 2006, a level it admits comes with ‘significant risks’ but several times safer than the lung-shredding, suffocating extreme exposures it sanctioned for over a decade.