Protecting workers health in the construction industry

Protecting workers health in the construction industry

BOHS urges MPs to take immediate action to prevent deaths and illness caused by exposure to respirable crystalline silica.

The British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), the Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection and the UK’s leading scientific society on workplace health exposures, has written to MPs to urge them to take immediate action to prevent avoidable deaths and illness caused by exposure to respirable crystalline silica. An estimated 2.2 million workers could be at risk of aggressive respiratory diseases, including silicosis, cancer and the risk of tuberculosis, in the construction industry alone.

It is believed 500 UK construction workers die each year just from silicosis, a disease listed by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine as also increasing vulnerability for those infected by COVID-19. Silica is linked to the estimated 4,000 deaths a year from COPD and it is believed 75,000 cases could easily be prevented, if action was taken.

Six months ago, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on respiratory health published the “Silica – the next asbestos” report highlighting the immediate and continuing threat to British workers of poor health protection in the workplace. BOHS contributed to the report and is now seeking action to follow up on recommendations by the Parliamentary Group.

“The Report highlighted a problem that has been known about for many years. It’s a hundred years since the Hawk’s Nest Disaster in the States where hundreds, if not thousands, died from silica inhalation in building just one tunnel,” said Kelvin Williams, President of the Society. “Every year, millions of pounds are spent on treatment and sickness benefits, because people have been exposed to silica dust. Much of this is entirely preventable. Prevention is undoubtably cheaper, easier and better than trying to cure these illnesses.”

Respiratory PPE, enclosures for cutting, extraction hoods, local exhaust ventilation (LEV), water suppression and on-tool extraction are all readily available means to prevent exposure. The Health and Safety Executive confirmed earlier this year that, although there is a general legal duty to take such measures, less than a third of firms were compliant. Raising compliance could save a further 700 lives, estimates industry experts at BAM Nuttall.

However, with a shortage and ramped up costs for Respiratory Protection Equipment and pressures to cut costs and an over-stretched HSE, the Society fears the problem is about to get much worse. Heavy discounting on artificial stone surfaces and the difficulty in finding affordable breathing protection because of COVID-19 may mean new kitchens can come at a very heavy cost to the people installing them.

Action is more urgent now and can save countless lives as research over the summer, published in the clinical journal, CHEST, confirms that once exposed, the damage is done. Further scientific findings, published in the European Respiratory Journal in July, went on to show a direct link between COPD, to an increased likelihood of pneumonia and COVID-19 deaths.

“We don’t know the true scale of the problem. The Society is concerned that COVID-19 is accelerating the rate of death for those exposed to harmful substances, like silica, in the workplace. It is reasonable to believe that the higher COVID-19 mortality rates in older males has an association with inhaling dust in the workplace. However, without the changes recommended in the report, we will not be able to make that connection,” explained Mr Williams.

The Parliamentary Group recommended making silicosis a reportable illness for employers under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases, and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (2013) for those who are still at work and exposed, and called on Government to similarly amend the Health Protection (Notification) Regulations 2010 to make silicosis notifiable through the soon-to-be defunct, Public Health England,

In their letter to MPs, the Society has urged member of the Parliamentary group to follow the example of their counterparts in the Australian legislature, who have prompted the government by putting forward legislation in their own right.

“Brexit is likely to dominate the Parliamentary agenda, but this is literally life and death,” said Kevin Bampton, the Chief Executive of BOHS and a former of Public Law. “Parliamentarians have recognized the urgency of this issue; we are now asking them to follow through on this. Action now can prevent COVID-19 deaths, but also long-term illness and disability.”

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