Combatting respirable crystalline silica exposure in construction

Clay Technology magazine
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26 Sep 2019

A Lancashire-based company has been fined after exposing its employees to respirable crystalline silica. Idha Valeur looks into the issue, regulations and what measures the industry should take.

Playscape Design Limited was fined £20,000 and £3,000 in costs by Greater Manchester Magistrates’ Court on 9 July for failing to provide two workers with sufficient protection against exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS).

In March last year, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Inspector, Rebecca Hamer, conducted an unannounced inspection at the playground contractor’s site at Newbank Garden Centre, Radcliffe, UK. Hamer served a prohibition notice to stop two workers continuing to cut flagstones with a power tool as they were not wearing safety gear to protect their lungs from RCS, which is released when materials containing silica are cut.

HSE then issued an improvement notice to ensure the installation and landscaping company met provision standards, but a similar job was completed at the same site under the previous conditions.

Playscape Design pleaded guilty to breaching the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002, Regulation 7(1), as well as not adhering to the issued improvement notice, thus breaking the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, section 33(1)(g).

‘Exposure to respirable crystalline silica can cause life-threatening diseases including silicosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), which can lead to impaired lung function, lung cancer and death. This incident could so easily have been avoided by simply carrying out correct control measures and safe working practices,’ Hamer stated in a HSE press release.

Scoping the problem

According to HSE research, past exposure to cancer-causing substances causes approximately 3,500 cancer deaths annually in the construction industry, with the majority relating to either asbestos or silica sources.

‘This means that for every fatal construction accident, approximately 100 construction workers are estimated to die from diseases, particularly of the lung, caused or made worse by their work,’ HSE said.

HSE recently conducted national construction site inspections focused on lung disease, to put the spotlight on the industry’s high rates of injuries and high risks of health issues.

There are three key areas HSE encourages companies within the industry to focus on to prevent ill-health from exposure to silica. These are:

  • Know the risks – Before beginning any construction activity, companies should establish what the dust and other risks are likely to be, as well as thinking about the work and tasks involved, and who might be affected. It is a company’s legal duty to identify and assess the significance of these. In addition, they should ensure workers are aware of any risks and what they need to do. This can help identify joint solutions and develop a positive culture towards managing health risks.
  • Plan the work – Companies should consider how best they can prevent risks through design changes or using different methods of work. This is more effective for preventing as many health risks as possible, rather than controlling them once the work is underway. It is often more cost-effective. If that is not possible, companies should decide on the necessary work methods and equipment to provide effective control together with the arrangements needed to implement them.
  • Use the right controls – The final step is to ensure that when work is underway, people should have access to the right controls and have the appropriate training to use them effectively. A common problem is the over-reliance on masks to protect workers when measures should also be taken to stop the silica dust getting into the air. Even when masks are used, a range of selection and in-use issues can mean that any protection is greatly reduced. The use of domestic vacuums for silica dust removal instead of the higher H or M Class specification required for a work environment is also something employers need to be aware of.