Silica dust cancer risk tackled by cross-industry commitment

Measures to control employee exposure to the second biggest cancer-causing agent found in the world’s workplaces have been introduced by a cross-sector of organisations.

After signing a commitment to tackle the cancer risk posed by respirable crystalline silica (RCS), organisations have removed or substituted materials which contain the deadly dust while others have introduced mechanisms to control what workers breathe in.

The ‘Tackling respirable crystalline together: a cross-industry commitment’ was joined by organisations from across industry including construction, rail and mineral products, as well as professional bodies, academics and unions.

It followed a roundtable discussion hosted by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) as part of its No Time to Lose (NTTL) occupational cancer campaign in March 2016.

Lung cancer caused by silica dust exposure through work kills nearly 800 people a year in Britain – an average of 15 per week. In the European Union, it is estimated there are around five million people exposed to silica dust in the workplace every year.

To help tackle this significant health issue, the commitment aimed to achieve three principal objectives:

  • to work together to reduce exposure to RCS through effective monitoring and management of dust
  • to increase awareness and understanding of the potential health risks associated with exposure to RCS in order to change attitudes and behaviours
  • to share good practice on the management of RCS across industry sectors.

IOSH surveyed 36 pledge signatories to see what actions had been taken, with the majority of respondents saying IOSH’s campaign resources had proved useful.

Talking about the responses, Shelley Frost, IOSH’s Director of Strategic Development, said:

“It was encouraging to see a number of participants eliminating the risk by removing or substituting silica-containing materials and considering mechanisms for controlling dust at source. Over 70 per cent are also actively reviewing contractors’ risk assessments for potential silica dust exposure and controls.

“This really illustrates how our No Time to Lose campaign is helping businesses drive change and prevent exposure to RCS.”

Last month (November 2017), IOSH organised a meeting to discuss the important work implemented by organisations on RCS. It was held at the International Convention Centre (ICC), Birmingham, UK.

Representatives from organisations including the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH), Imperial College London, Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM), Mineral Products Association (MPA), Network Rail, Office of Rail and Road (ORR), Park Health and Safety Partnership, Tideway, and the Workplace Safety and Health Institute in Singapore took part in the discussion and shared how they have tackled RCS.

Speaking about actions taken by IOSH, Ms Frost added:

“Over the past 18 months IOSH, through its No Time to Lose campaign, has raised awareness of silica dust at over 50 events globally.

“We have collaborated with the Society of Safety Engineers Ljubljana in Slovenia, the Center for Safety and Health at Work in Bulgaria and Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation Ltd to adapt and translate the campaigns silica dust resources to help raise awareness at conferences overseas.

“We have also worked with small and large businesses to develop good practice case studies, and through our promotions the silica dust resources have been downloaded from the campaign website over 24,500 times.”

Other organisations provided updates.

ICOH publicised findings from a study in September, which revealed that around 48,000 deaths are caused by exposure to silica dust at work worldwide, every year.

The IOM published a scientific paper that includes a health and economic assessment for RCS, which is being used to underpin possible changes to European Regulations. Imperial College London highlighted the silica burden at high-profile conferences such as the Netherlands’ Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment’s ‘Preventing work-related cancer, conference on carcinogens’.

The UK’s Health and Safety Executive is tackling RCS through a variety of interventions including its Health and Work strategy, Go Home Healthy campaign and the Workplace Healthy Lungs Summit. The BOHS launched a new course ‘Certificate in Controlling Health Risks in Construction’ and delivered four roadshows as part of their Breathe Freely Campaign. Unite the Union has raised awareness of RCS to all Unite National Industrial Sector Committees.

The ORR, Crossrail and Network Rail are working to improve conditions and raise awareness throughout the rail industry. Network Rail has implemented a strategic review, comparing ballast and dust specifications, gaining a better understanding of risk exposures and providing a range of mitigations to reduce the risk of exposure.

Keith Morey, from Network Rail, said:

“We are proud to be part of the No Time to Lose campaign; working towards reducing and ultimately, eliminating the risk of exposure to RCS. We continue to work with different teams within the organisation to enhance exposure monitoring and sharing of best practice via the various working groups.”

The MPA has developed a health surveillance chest x-ray programme, and has conducted over 2,000 chest x-rays. The programme captures the recorded work history of individuals and the identification of minerals and processes. The x-rays have also uncovered a number of non-work-related health conditions that would have otherwise gone undetected.

Kevin Stevens, from the MPA, said:

“We have been raising awareness and sharing best practice across the sector using our Safer and Healthier by Sharing initiative. Connecting with over 30,000 people across 160 countries we will share best practice across and”

In the construction industry, Tideway has written a designers’ guide and has eliminated the health risks at the design stage on a number on initiatives. Park Health and Safety Partnership’s occupational hygienists have engaged clients on several major UK construction projects by providing support and advice to mitigate exposure.

Eric Ball represented Tideway and Park Health and Safety Partnership. He said:

“At both organisations we have utilised the No Time to Lose and Breathe Freely campaign resources during our health, safety and wellbeing events. Looking forward, we are seeking to engage more widely with design professionals covering both architects and engineers.”

To find out more about the initiatives implemented by organisations view the full progress report here.

During the discussion, representatives also shared issues they felt needed to be addressed. These include raising awareness of RCS to SMEs and younger workers, and sharing good practice more widely through online communications channels including social media.

Ms Frost said:

“Silica dust is definitely on the radar of big businesses, but there is more we need to do to reach SMEs and young workers. This will be the focus for the commitment going forward.”