On the rocks - HSE publishes new guidance on silica exposure

England and Wales

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has recently updated its published guidance on silica exposure, ahead of a programme of inspections that will require employers to demonstrate the safety measures they have put in place.

Background

There is worldwide recognition of the dangers associated with asbestos exposure. However, while it is increasingly common to see an article in which silica is dubbed “the new asbestos”, the effects caused by silica exposure have attracted far less attention. In the field of medicine at least, the risks associated with prolonged and extensive exposure to free crystalline silica have been recognised for centuries. Silica exposure is associated with the development of an array of diseases, including silicosis, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

In other jurisdictions, including Australia and South Africa, claims for silicosis are widely reported, with calls for strict occupational controls to be introduced. In South Africa, the Tshiamiso Trust manages a scheme for those who have contracted silica induced diseases due to exposure in specific gold mines. Reports suggest that the Trust has already paid out in the region of £16,000,000. 

The guidance

Given the consequences of silica exposure and increased reports of the effects, it is no surprise that the HSE has revised its own guidance ahead of “sector focused inspections” which are due to commence next month. The HSE has also introduced an ebulletin on the subject. The inspections will focus on manufacturers that use materials which contain silica. Given that silica occurs naturally in many substances, including rocks, stone, sand, and clay, the revised guidance covers, among other industries, brick and tile manufacturing, stonework and foundries.

In England and Wales, the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) place employers under a duty to control substances that are hazardous to health. Accordingly, businesses which are engaged in a wide variety of work, including the production of slate, kitchen worktops, stone fireplaces, tiles, bricks, clay and building sand all need to take heed.

Steps for employers

The HSE has indicated that inspectors will look for evidence that employers have put in place effective measures, such as:

  • local exhaust ventilation

  • water suppression

  • protective equipment.

The HSE has also warned that any breaches will result in enforcement action. Employers should familiarise themselves with the guidance and review the COSHH duties to ensure they are well prepared for the inspections.

Those in the insurance industry should be aware of the risks associated with silica and negative predictions of a significant rise in instances of silicosis and lung cancer.