The British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), the scientific society on workplace health exposures, has written to MPs calling for action on a dust hazard which could put over 2 million workers at risk in the construction industry alone. It warns that hundreds are dying each year from the lung-scarring disease silicosis and that those infected by Covid-19 could be especially vulnerable.
Silica is also linked to 4,000 deaths a year from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Unions have also raised concerns about hundreds of preventable silica-related work cancer deaths each year and a link to serious autoimmune and other diseases.
BOHS warns: “With a shortage and ramped up costs for respiratory protection equipment (RPE) and pressures to cut costs and an over-stretched HSE [Health and Safety Executive], the Society fears the problem is about to get much worse.”
Kevin Bampton, the chief executive of BOHS, said: “Brexit is likely to dominate the parliamentary agenda, but this is literally life and death. Parliamentarians have recognised the urgency of this issue; we are now asking them to follow through on this. Action now can prevent Covid-19 deaths, but also long-term illness and disability.”
The union Unite has been at the forefront of the campaign for better controls on silica, which is a risk to its members in construction, foundries, ceramics, quarries and other sectors.
In 2019, Unite launched a silica exposure register for its members and backed a campaign to cut the current UK legal limit of 0.1 mg/m³ for respirable crystalline silica to no more than 0.05 mg/m³. It said this move would dramatically reduce the incidence of silicosis, lung cancer, autoimmune diseases and other silica-related conditions.