Companies are continuing to expose workers to excessive levels of silica dust, which can cause deadly cancers and lung diseases, the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has admitted.
HSE, the official UK safety regulator, urged the stone industry to do more to protect workers’ health after an inspection initiative in the south of England found a failure to control the potentially lethal dust was commonplace. HSE inspectors visited 60 stone businesses, including work surface manufacturers, stonemasons and monumental masons, in the period from June to September 2015.
The initiative, supported by trade association, Stone Federation Great Britain, visited both federation members and non-members. HSE found serious breaches at over half (35) of the premises that were visited, with inadequate control of respirable crystalline silica (RCS) one of the “common areas of concern… found throughout the initiative”. It issued four prohibition notices, 54 improvement notices and provided verbal advice to others. HSE told Hazards magazine that most of its enforcement action – three of the four prohibition notices and 36 of the 54 improvement notices – related to a failure to control silica exposures.
HSE said “a number of businesses” were unaware that in 2006 the workplace exposure limit for respirable crystalline silica was revised from 0.3 mg/m3 to 0.1mg/m3, requiring more stringent controls. In a clarification to Hazards magazine, the watchdog said “at least 7” of the 60 businesses were unaware of the tighter standard, “however feedback was not sought from all inspectors on this point.”
The new information from HSE adds to concerns about the effectiveness of official efforts to address the workplace silica hazard.
Last year, HSE was accused of leaving workers at double jeopardy from the cancer-causing, lung scarring dust. A report in the workers’ safety magazine Hazards criticised HSE for resisting a union-backed call for it to halve the current 0.1mg/m3 exposure limit for the common workplace dust. And it said the government-imposed, hands-off, HSE enforcement policy combined with swingeing resource cuts mean even the current “deadly” standard is not being enforced effectively.
The report concluded that HSE’s strategy to address the long-established risks has not worked. A 2009 baseline study by HSE found that all the major industries with a potential for high silica exposures, including the stone industry, were failing to control the risks effectively.
HSE campaigns over many years have failed to increase awareness of silica risks or led to improvements in workplace conditions.