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Sat May 15 2021

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MPs call for tighter silica dust exposure limits

5 Mar 20 A group of MPs is pressing the government to halve the amount of silica dust to which workers are allowed to be exposed.

They are calling for the workplace exposure limit for respirable crystalline silica (RCS) in the UK to be cut from  0.1mg/m3 to 0.05mg/m3 in line with the 2003 recommended exposure standard from the Scientific Committee on Occupation Exposure Limits.

This is one of the recommendations in a report published this week – Silica: the next asbestos? – by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Respiratory Health, supported by the construction industry benefits organisation B&CE.

Silica is a natural substance found in concrete, bricks, tiles and mortar. When fractured through processes such as cutting, drilling and polishing, it becomes respirable crystalline silica.

Around 600,000 UK workers are exposed to RCS each year. They are at risk of developing silicosis, the most common chronic occupational lung disease in the world, when they inhale RCS over extended periods.

As well as halving the workplace exposure limit (WEL), the new report calls for new health and safety regulations specifically relating to the control of RCS, to bring it into line with asbestos.

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It also suggests introducing an NHS screening programme for those exposed to RCS and for occupational health services into GP surgeries to allow for job histories to be taken where work-related ill health is suspected.

Jim Shannon MP, chair of the APPG for Respiratory Health, said: “This inquiry has given us real insight into the steps being taken to improve at-work health, especially around the issue of silica dust. We hope this report will assist the Health & Safety Executive, the government and the construction industry to shine light on an under-documented issue and protect the construction workforce from preventable injury and illnesses.”

One of those to submit evidence to the inquiry was Gordon Sommerville, 59, from Scotland, who retired from his work as a stone mason and builder due to ill health. In his evidence, he recalled almost non-existent levels of industry awareness to the dangers of inhaling dust at the start of his 38-year career. He said: “Today, colleges teach stoneworkers of the dangers, the HSE runs awareness campaigns and larger companies will supply employees with respiratory protection. But still the danger of dust has not filtered through to most and ignorance is still the major cause of dust diseases.”

Gregg McClymont, director of policy at B&CE, said:  “The aim of this report is to start a long-overdue conversation between government, parliament, health bodies and the construction industry about how to tackle silicosis; an entirely preventable, often fatal, condition.”

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