A pan-industry approach to controlling mineral dust in the workplace could help to reduce the UK’s occupational cancer burden, according to a global safety and health body.
Around 800 people in Britain a year die from lung cancer caused by prolonged exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) at work, says the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), with 900 new cases being diagnosed annually.
Experts from across UK industry were brought together by IOSH in London to debate whether a more collaborative approach to tackling silica dust at work can make a difference.
Representatives from the Health and Safety Executive, the Office of Road and Rail, Crossrail Ltd, the Mineral Products Association and Unite the Union were among those taking part in a roundtable discussion on the issue, facilitated by IOSH, at The Shard.
Shelley Frost, executive director of policy at IOSH, said: “Silica dust exposure is a cross-industry issue. Tackling it, therefore, requires a cross-industry approach.
“We believe that we can beat occupational cancers if we work together to control the risks of exposure to the causes. Joined up thinking, rather than each sector doing its own thing, has the potential to make a real difference in tackling this major occupational health issue.”
Ahead of the debate, IOSH conducted research with professionals working in the construction, rail, public services and mineral product sectors on silica dust exposure to identify common barriers to effectively controlling the issue.
A lack of understanding or awareness of silica dust as a hazard was the main cause highlighted. Resistance from employees to using controls, ineffective implementation of control measures in practice and employers not prioritising RCS as a significant hazard were also hampering efforts, they said.
Professor John Cherrie, from Heriot-Watt University and the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh, who will take part in the discussion, said many employees are currently being exposed to RCS above the acceptable limit in the UK and throughout the world.
He said: “Construction is the biggest industry where people can get exposed to respirable crystalline silica, but anyone working in a workplace that uses mineral products may face exposure. It could be in foundries, at brickworks and quarries or premises where stone products are manufactured.
“Dust can often be accepted as something that just naturally occurs as part of work processes, and it shouldn’t be. If you can see dust you need to do something about it.”
“Getting people to change their attitude to dust and take this issue seriously is key. This discussion is a real opportunity to shape how we deal with silica dust across industry in the years to come.”
The roundtable discussion was held to mark the launch by IOSH of new guidance for businesses on the issue of RCS.
The issue is one of five common agents associated with work-related cancer registrations and deaths in the UK that IOSH is raising awareness of through its No Time to Lose campaign.
Asbestos, diesel engine exhaust fumes, solar radiation and shift work are also being highlighted as part of the campaign, which aims to get work-related cancer more widely understood and help businesses take action.
According to research by Imperial College London, 8,000 people die from cancer and around 14,000 contract the disease each year in the UK because of exposure to a work-related carcinogen.
Shelley Frost said: “Whether you are an employer or employee, industry body or policy-maker, safety and health professional or occupational hygienist – we all have a part to play if we are to eliminate work-related cancer.”