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.
BOHS says that around 500 UK construction workers die each year just from silicosis, a disease listed by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine as also increasing vulnerability for those infected by Covid-19. Silica is linked to the estimated 4,000 deaths a year from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and it is believed 75,000 cases could be prevented if action was taken.
Six months ago, the all-party parliamentary group on respiratory health published a report Silica – the next asbestos highlighting the threat to British workers of poor health protection in the workplace. BOHS contributed to that report and is now seeking action to follow up on its recommendations.
“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 & Safety Executive reported earlier this year that, although there is a general legal duty to take such measures, fewer than a third of firms were compliant.
BOHS fears the problem is about to get much worse, with a shortage and ramped up costs for respiratory protection equipment, pressures to cut costs and an over-stretched HSE
Scientific findings, published in the European Respiratory Journal in July, show a direct link between COPD and an increased likelihood of pneumonia and Covid-19 death.
“We don’t know the true scale of the problem,” Kelvin Williams. Admitted. “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.”
The Parliamentary Group recommended making silicosis a reportable illness for employers under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases & Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (2013) (RIDDOR) 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,
The BOHS is hoping for a backbench MP to bring forward a private member’s bill to bring in the necessary legislation.
“Brexit is likely to dominate the parliamentary agenda, but this is literally life and death,” said BOHS chief executive Kevin Bampton. “Parliamentarians have recognised 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.”