Current guidelines recommend that only workers who report new or worsening respiratory symptoms are given an X-ray. However, a new study shows that stonemasons develop lung disease before the symptoms appear.
The study looked in detail at six Scottish stonemasons who were all under 40 and were without symptoms. The study – published today in the scientific journal Occupational Medicine – suggests that in addition to reducing exposure, regular radiological screening should be given to all workers at risk so that there is early detection of the disease.
“This study is important because it highlights that young men working as stone masons may develop this serious occupational disease even before the onset of respiratory symptoms and after as little as seven years,” said Dr Alasdair Emslie, president of the Society of Occupational Medicine.
“We know that it can also affect others working in the construction industry – many of whom are self-employed or work for small employers and do not have access to good occupational health advice, so proper risk assessments are not undertaken.
“The missed opportunity is that this is an old disease that we know how to control. It’s simply a case of getting the right expertise, into the right workplaces.”
Dr Peter Reid, the lead author, from the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh, said: “This study highlights some of the challenges associated with screening. However I think it makes the case for making sure that those at high risk are given X-rays at appropriate intervals, even when they don't have symptoms. Early detection could save young lives. At the same time, we should always remember that screening is not a substitute for good control of workplace exposure."
Thousands of workers in the construction, quarry, pottery and mining trades are exposed to silica every day. There is no cure; it kills more than 500 construction workers in the UK each year and leaves many more fighting for breath. The amounts of silica dust needed to cause damage are small – the largest amount of silica someone should be breathing in a day after using the right controls is smaller than a grain of rice.
The Society of Occupational Medicine says that employers should put in controls to ensure that they are measuring how much silica dust their workers are exposed to. They should also reduce exposure by using other non-silica containing materials where possible. It advises using good exhaust ventilation systems when working with materials that might contain silica; using wet drilling and cutting techniques whenever possible; and using effective respiratory protection and dust reduction equipment.