Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS)
According to the (Encyclopedia Britannica 2018) an Italian medical professor called Dr Bernadino Ramazzini who was thought to have been " the founder of occupational medicine" recognised the health effects associated with dust when studying stone workers. Postmortems of stone workers then went on to show sand like substances embedded in workers lung tissue.
The following quote just about sums it up "The mortality of those who dig minerals is very great, women who marry men of this sort marry again and again. According to Agricola, at he mines in the Carpathian mountains, women have been known to marry seven times" (Ellis 2018).
So the year 2020, we have learned from history, right? Wrong! The fact that poor practices are still happening, I witness it almost daily, workers are dying needlessly every day. In fact 7000 people die each year from lung cancer associated with RCS exposure in the EU alone (No time to lose campaign, 2018).
Workers put themselves at risk every time they pick up a drill or concrete saw!
Managers/planners put workers at risk every time they inadequately plan a job!
Colleagues put people at risk every time they look the other way or do not challenge!
Ineffective regulation puts workers at risk!
Lets look at each one in turn.
Construction sites, quarries, stonemasons, miners, tunneling, sand blasting and manufacturing. Just some of the industries where workers are more at risk. Why? Working with stone raw materials or products, certain stone contains up to 90% silica in make up. That in itself will not just be enough to cause cancers and silicosis in workers. Research has shown me that workers think that they are invincible, take construction generally young to middle aged men with with many years ahead of them. Facial hair, lack of cooperation with their employer, general disregard for health we could go on and debate each but it goes much deeper than to blame the individuals on the coal face. After all without effective management we just have a free for all, don't we? Sites where management was effective were much more compliant.
Education! do workers even know of the dangers? In my research 84% of all those who responded had heard of asbestos,unsurprisingly, quite high, workers know about asbestos through its high notoriety but through education. Only 37% had heard of RCS. This is rather worrying considering that all questionnaires were completed by people who would consider working with stone as their "Day job" and not from those who would come into contact with asbestos. So why are we not managing how we ought to? ECSHE offer a training course, ran at cost and non profit making, what is the uptake? minimal. I ask, do company owners offer training, proper supervision, enforcement of standards and regulatory compliance or is that they simply do not care. It is a mixture of all these reasons, if you look at root causes as with almost everything it will go back to organisational failings. For example taking that all engineering, managerial and administrative controls were in place (which they were not) lets look at RPE, from my research 70% of those questioned at some point wore RPE but only 51% had been face fit tested, 54% were actively encouraged by management to wear PPE.
How often to we walk past a colleague that is being exposed to the dangers of RCS and do nothing about it? How many times have you challenged management for the lack of planning, control or upholding company standards? Probably because you don't want to cause hassle for a friend or you don't want to ruffle the feathers of your manager. Can you look in the mirror and say you have done all you can to help protect your friend? After all you would not allow him to dangle from a 40 meter height! Back to organisational failings? poor safety culture perhaps? It truly is a minefield where the answer is not an easy one. It is a conversation we all need to be having in our workplaces.
Now another controversial statement, ineffective regulation! By this do I mean lack of Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Local Authority budget? or perhaps Fee For Intervention (FFI), enforcement notices or prosecution being too infrequent or even too lenient? Maybe! but I want to concentrate on the Workplace Exposure Limits (WEL). RCS has a Long Term Exposure Limit (LTEL) of 0.1 mg/m3 in the United Kingdom (EH40, 2018). This was reduced from 0.3mg/m3 in 2005, thus reducing the risk of contracting silicosis from 20% to 2.5%. However there is an argument to reduce this even further. Ireland, Italy, Finland and Poland have a WEL of 0.05 mg/m3, indeed Canada for example has a WEL of 0.025 mg/m3. This will further reduce the risk of silicosis to <1% (CD203) Thus far this has been dismissed due to estimated costs for business to implement. After all its only a Carcinogen.
If asbestos was natures wonder fibre, what is concrete and stone? We banned the use of asbestos but we cant ban stone and concrete, we need to learn how to use it safely! I will leave you with that thought.