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July 23, 2014

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HSE accused of inadequate safeguards against silica dust

The HSE has been accused of putting workers at risk of contracting lung cancer and other respiratory diseases because of inadequate safeguards against crystalline silica.

Academics at Stirling University in Scotland have criticised the watchdog over its recommended safe level of exposure to the toxic workplace dust, a powder created when working with bricks, concrete and plaster.

Silica is second only to asbestos as a cause of occupational cancer deaths and exposure can cause a range of other illnesses including silicosis, tuberculosis, kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and arthritis.

HSE has said that technological limitations mean it is impractical to monitor for its presence below the exposure standard, while some industry bodies have argued that the cost of implementing these new controls would be prohibitive.

Professor Rory O’Neill, Stirling University’s occupational and environmental health and safety research group and author of a new report on the substance, said: “The HSE says monitoring technology isn’t good enough yet to measure low levels of silica dust, so we must stick with the same deadly, higher but measurable standard. It is wrong on both counts.

“Modern science can obtain and analyse dust on Mars. If HSE’s science can’t obtain and analyse adequately one of the most commonly encountered and deadly workplace dust exposure on Earth, you have to ask who on Earth is the watchdog protecting?”

Professor O’Neill called on HSE to follow the lead of the American Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and implement a rule change that would cut the recommended safety level in half.

Research professor Andrew Watterson, said: “OSHA says a tighter standard is perfectly possible, can be monitored in the workplace and would save hundreds of lives and billions each year.

“The current lax legal occupational exposure standard in the UK guarantees another generation will be blighted by entirely preventable, deadly and disabling conditions. Yet the HSE is actively promoting an industry-supported but unsustainable argument that the current standard must stay.”

A spokesperson for the HSE said: “Health and safety law requires employers to assess the risk of exposure to silica dust in their workplace and prevent it, when prevention is not possible, exposure must be controlled.

“There is a UK workplace exposure limit for silica of 0.1 mg m-3, and employers must reduce exposure to below this level. With the required exposure controls in place, silica dust is usually reduced to significantly below 0.1 mg m-3.

“The advice HSE has received indicates that it is not practical or achievable to consistently and reliably measure real workplace samples of respirable crystalline silica to significantly lower levels.  

“This is because the technical samplers currently used suffer from interference and poor precision at these low measurement masses. Measurements below the current WEL would require complex sampling and analysis processes which have not been validated.”

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Rory O'NeillJavier Saavedra, MSc, EurOSHM, GradIOSHJack Edwards Recent comment authors
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Javier Saavedra, MSc, EurOSHM, GradIOSH
Javier Saavedra, MSc, EurOSHM, GradIOSH

I for one would side with HSE regarding sampling. A most respected colleague of mine that is an industrial hygienist at heart and has lengthy experience in sampling for crystalline silica in granite and quartz quarries said to me that no matter test results ex sampling made in drilling and other quarrying activities were below the WEL (same as in the UK) silicosis cases are not showing any downward trend and this keeps occupational health practitioners most worried. Representative sampling and then, adherence to implemented exposure controls might be an issue that needs plenty of research. Representative sampling is not… Read more »

Rory O'Neill
Rory O'Neill

HSE doesn’t have an argument, it has an excuse. Both OSHA and NIOSH have said sampling to a tighter standard is practical in workplace settings; other jurisdictions do this to a standard even tighter than the 0.05 level proposed, and have no problem enforcing it. And a number of competent industrial hygienists have come forward offering to advise HSE on how to measure low level exposures. We do have a triple whammy on silica in the UK: widespread non-adherence with the current standard (admitted by HSE); lack of enforcement of the current standard (evidenced by HSE’s research on silica levels… Read more »

Jack Edwards
Jack Edwards

I spent twenty odd years in the Pneumoconiosis Field Research unit working on silicosis and allied respiratory diseases and find the present attitude towards sampling and methods of measurement almost ludicrous after all the difficulties we faced in the mining industry in the nineteen fifties onwards. You should have been with some of us, you would have learned a thing or two. Our PFR Unit went on to be the IOM who became renowned for their work on silicosis, asbestosis and other respiratory diseases. I am eighty nine now but I would like to see the continuation of prevention of… Read more »

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