Tackling lung disease in quarries

Materials World magazine
3 Jan 2020

Training programmes have been launched across Northern Ireland to reduce the higher than average rate of lung disease in quarry workers. Ceri Jones finds out more.

Quarry workers in Northern Ireland are fives times more likely to die of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) than the average person, according to Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland (HSENI).

When carrying out trend analysis, data from the Northern Ireland Register of Deaths were compared against records of the general population, from the British Lung Foundation, by HSENI Principal Inspector, Ken Logan. This revealed that the UK has the 12th highest number of deaths from COPD in the world.

‘2.7% of the general population in 2012 died from COPD. When I carried out an analysis of a 10-year period from the Register of Deaths for quarry workers in Northern Ireland, it represented 13%. So, a quarry worker in Northern Ireland is five times more likely to die from COPD than a normal member of the population,’ Logan told Materials World.

This prompted HSENI’s tell, sell and compel campaign, which set out to invoke operational and behavioural change, including greater self regulation. The team carried out 12 workshops across 80 quarries with more than 150 staff from all levels of seniority.

‘We told the industry in that we wrote to them a couple of years ago about what they needed to do to get a dust strategy in place, and the workshops were the sell, showing what can be achieved,’ Logan said.

Dealing with dust

The compel element of the campaign involved establishing guidelines for quarries which, if not met, would prompt HSENI to take enforcement action under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations. Core recommendations were built around repetitive activities and behaviours onsite, including:

  • Vehicles – to be fitted with adequate window seals, ventilation systems and filters, and cleaned with vacuums and wet wipes
  • Control rooms – use of CCTV equipment to reduce time workers are on the ground, and for the rooms to be washed out regularly and control panels wiped down to remove any dust, and
  • Communal spaces – areas for food and leisure should have walls and floors coated in easily wipe-clean materials, such as tile, linoleum or plastic, with designated facilities for workers to clean their boots, boilersuits or hands before entering. They should be regularly vacuumed and mopped clean, but never swept.

In addition to these practical changes, HSENI is calling for sites to install dust suppression units, to assess the silica levels of the particles produced to track more dangerous substances, and to carry out health checks and chest X-rays on staff as a regular part of ongoing occupational health management.

Total dust management

By late 2019, all quarries in Northern Ireland had received best practice guidelines and were obliged to submit a dust management strategy to HSENI. From this year, they will need to evidence those changes.

‘We are hoping that in early 2020 inspectors will be visiting the quarries – we have sent out a letter following the workshops asking the industry to send us their revised action plans in relation to actions that they are going to take to minimise dust exposure. We have given them a proforma of how to put together their dust strategy and asked them to give us an action plan, telling us what actions they are going to take, or showing us what actions they have already taken. Then we are going to target those who have not responded.

‘It may be ambitious, but within the next two years we want to turn that figure of being five times more likely to die of COPD if you are a quarry worker, to you are no more at risk than any member of the general population.’

In parallel with the current initiative, HSENI is considering taking a similar approach to high-dust industries, including concrete and waste recycling, to provide what it refers to as total dust management.