An academic-cum-safety activist from the University of Stirling is calling on the HSE to tighten workplace safeguards against harmful silica dust.
An editorial campaign by Professor Rory O’Neil in Hazards magazine – a union-backed publication – calls on HSE to halve allowable exposure to silica dust, which it says is second only to asbestos as a cause of occupational cancer deaths.
Hundreds of thousands of workers are put at risk and 1,000 could die every year due to exposure to harmful workplace dust, O’Neil calculates.
Crystalline silica dust, created during work involving stone, rock, concrete and plaster, can cause a range of illnesses if inhaled, including silicosis, kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and work-related asthma.
The campaign coincides with worrying statistics from HSE when poor construction practices that potentially place workers’ health at risk were found on at least one in three sites visited by HSE inspectors in its latest two-week “blitz”.
Inspectors focused on respiratory risks from dusts containing silica materials, exposure to other hazardous substances such as cement and lead paint, manual handling, noise and vibration.
On 201 construction sites out of 560 visited, 239 notices of contravention were served – each one generating a Fee for Intervention invoice.
This total includes 85 enforcement notices, 107 improvement notices and 13 prohibition notices where conditions were so bad that work had to be stopped immediately.
An HSE spokesman confirmed that the enforcement figures relate only to health-related issues, and that figures on other issues – for instance safe working at height – were not available.
The Hazards campaign points out that currently, a workplace exposure limit of 0.1 milligrams per cubic metre is set in the UK under health and safety law.
The same limit is set in the US, but the American regulator the Occupation Safety and Health Adminstration has argued in favour of cutting it by half, as it is based on research dating back to 1968.
Professor O’Neil and his Stirling colleague Andrew Watterson want the HSE to tighten standards, but the regulator is apparently opposed to the move due to technological limitations in monitoring silica levels that precisely.
Meanwhile, construction union UCATT condemned the results of the HSE’s site campaign. Steve Murphy, general secretary of construction, said: “These results show that employers simply don’t care about the long-term health of construction workers. Employers putting workers’ health at risk should be prosecuted, there is simply no excuse as basic safety measures can massively reduce the dangers workers face.
“Workers are constantly being exposed to health risks on construction sites. The long-term damage that workers are being exposed to is a time bomb for their health. The majority of construction workers are forced to retire or leave the industry before they reach state pension age, due to injury or ill health.”
The HSE now plans to increase its focus on health-related issues for the rest of the year, the spokesman said. In a statement, the HSE’s chief inspector, Heather Bryant, said: “We recognise the construction sector’s progress in reducing the number of people killed and injured by its activities. But it is clear from these figures that there is an unacceptable toll of ill-health and fatal disease in the industry.
“So, to encourage the industry to treat health issues in the same way as safety, HSE’s inspectors will consolidate the efforts of this initiative throughout the rest of the year by looking at the prevention and control of health risks in construction, alongside their continued assessment of the management of safety risk issues.
“We will make sure the construction industry ‘Thinks health’ as well as safety.”