• International Workplace
  • 19 December 2017

Silica dust cancer risk tackled by cross-industry commitment

Measures to control employee exposure to the second biggest cancer-causing agent found in the world’s workplaces have been introduced by a cross-sector of organisations.

After signing a commitment to tackle the cancer risk posed by respirable crystalline silica (RCS), organisations have removed or substituted materials which contain the deadly dust, while others have introduced mechanisms to control what workers breathe in.

The ‘Tackling respirable crystalline together: a cross-industry commitment’ was joined by organisations from across industry including construction, rail and mineral products, as well as professional bodies, academics and unions.

It followed a roundtable discussion hosted by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) as part of its No Time to Lose (NTTL) occupational cancer campaign in March 2016.

Lung cancer caused by silica dust exposure through work kills nearly 800 people a year in Britain – an average of 15 per week. In the European Union, it is estimated there are around five million people exposed to silica dust in the workplace every year.

To help tackle this significant health issue, the commitment aimed to achieve three objectives:

  • to work together to reduce exposure to RCS through effective monitoring and management of dust;
  • to increase awareness and understanding of the potential health risks associated with exposure to RCS in order to change attitudes and behaviours; and
  • to share good practice on the management of RCS across industry sectors.

IOSH surveyed 36 pledge signatories to see what actions had been taken. Talking about the responses, Shelley Frost, IOSH’s Director of Strategic Development, said:

“It was encouraging to see a number of participants eliminating the risk by removing or substituting silica-containing materials and considering mechanisms for controlling dust at source. Over 70% are also actively reviewing contractors’ risk assessments for potential silica dust exposure and controls.”

Last month (November 2017), IOSH organised a meeting to discuss the important work implemented by organisations on RCS. Representatives from organisations including the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH), Imperial College London, Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM), Mineral Products Association (MPA), Network Rail, Office of Rail and Road (ORR), Park Health and Safety Partnership, Tideway, and the Workplace Safety and Health Institute in Singapore took part in the discussion and shared how they have tackled RCS.

ICOH publicised findings from a study in September, which revealed that around 48,000 deaths are caused by exposure to silica dust at work worldwide, every year.

The UK’s Health and Safety Executive is tackling RCS through a variety of interventions including its Health and Work strategy, Go Home Healthy campaign and the Workplace Healthy Lungs Summit.

During the discussion, representatives also shared issues they felt needed to be addressed. These include raising awareness of RCS to SMEs and younger workers, and sharing good practice more widely through online communications channels including social media.

To find out more about the initiatives implemented by organisations view the full progress report here.