Call for UK action on deadly silica risks

MPs in the UK House of Commons are being urged to take immediate action to prevent avoidable deaths and illness caused by exposure to respirable crystalline silica.

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.

ACTION: Send an e-postcard to HSE demanding it introduce a more protective UK silica standard no higher than 0.05mg/m³ and with a phased move to 0.025mg/m³.

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