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Silica Dust – The New Asbestos?

Construction workers face many risks when doing their jobs, including the risk of exposure to potentially deadly substances like asbestos and silica dust. The use of asbestos was banned over 20 years ago after it was discovered that prolonged exposure was linked to deadly conditions like lung cancer and lung disease. Silica dust poses a similar health risk and has also been linked to cancer and other fatal types of lung disease, but it isn’t banned because it’s so common in building materials.

Despite the prevalence of silica dust and the dangers long-term exposure can cause, many people are unaware of the risks associated with it, or that they can make silica dust claims if they develop a disease related to workplace silica dust exposure. If you’re wondering ‘what is silica dust?’ or have questions around the risks, keep reading.

In this handy blog, we’re going to explain exactly what silica dust is, where it can be found, why it’s dangerous, and what to do if you or a loved one has been impacted by silica dust exposure.

What is Silica Dust?

Most types of rock, sand, and clay have a substance in them called silica. It’s a naturally occurring substance and one that is hard to avoid, although some materials have a lower concentration of silica than others (for example, granite typically contains 30% silica whilst limestone contains approximately 2%).

When materials containing silica are cut or sanded, they produce respirable crystalline silica dust (RCS). The dust is incredibly fine and typically can’t be seen by the naked eye, but it can easily be breathed in and settle into the lungs.

Many activities within construction can cause crystalline silica dust to be released, including:

  • Sanding
  • Cutting
  • Sawing
  • Grinding
  • Drilling
  • Blasting

Due to the fact silica dust is found in most construction materials and that it’s easily produced from carrying out basic construction duties, this is what makes it so dangerous.

Why is Crystalline Silica Dangerous?

If, over time, you breathe in a large amount of silica dust, it will begin to build up in the lungs and can cause the onset of several serious and often deadly lung conditions. This is because as the respirable silica dust settles in the lungs, it will cause inflammation.

Over time, the inflamed areas become hard and turn into scar tissue. Areas of the lungs affected by scar tissue can’t work in the way they should, giving way to a number of health conditions.

These include:

Silicosis

Silicosis typically develops after years of exposure to respirable crystalline silica, but it can develop quickly if you are exposed to a high level of crystalline silica dust in a short time. It causes problems with breathing and can make you more susceptible to lung infections. It’s the biggest risk from RCS and is not a curable condition. Common symptoms include:

  • Being short of breath
  • Feeling fatigued or weak
  • Having a persistent cough

Generally speaking, silicosis isn’t deadly, but complications may arise and these can lead to respiratory failure which can be fatal.

Lung cancer

Heavy exposure to silica dust over many years can eventually lead to lung cancer, with those who have silicosis being more at risk of developing lung cancer later on. Symptoms include:

  • Having a persistent cough
  • Feeling fatigued
  • Being short of breath
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Coughing up blood

Depending on how quickly it’s diagnosed and how effective treatment is, lung cancer can be deadly.

Lung cancer

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to several conditions that affect the lungs, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. People who experience long-term exposure to silica dust may be susceptible to developing COPD as a result of the damage to their lung tissue. The symptoms of COPD vary, but may include:

  • Wheezing
  • Persistent coughing
  • Being short of breath
  • Coughing up phlegm (commonly associated with smoker’s coughs)

COPD is a manageable condition but it’s not curable, and it can cause fatal issues if it’s not managed properly or continues to worsen, even if treatment is being undertaken.

Who is Most Affected by Silica Dust?

People who work in construction are most likely to be affected by respirable crystalline silica dust exposure, with certain job roles and types carrying a higher risk. Those most likely to come into contact with silica dust include:

  • Quarry workers
  • Potters
  • Brick and tile manufacturers
  • Slate miners
  • Masonry manufacturers

Employer Responsibilities

Employers within the affected industries are legally required to take necessary precautions in line with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH), to minimise employee exposure to silica dust and educate them on the risks of working around it.

Under the legislation, your employer should:

  • Carry out a risk assessment relating to silica dust and notify you of significant points
  • Where possible, substitute high RCS materials with lower ones
  • Supply adequate respiratory protective equipment and PPE to minimise the risk of ingestion
  • Keep RCS levels below the Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL) of 0.1mg/m³ over eight hours using specified exposure control methods
  • Clearly inform you of the risks of working with RCS materials
  • Practice good occupational hygiene
  • Provide professional cleaning and dust extraction equipment and train you on how to use them

If your employer adheres to health and safety laws and best practices, the risk of silica dust related diseases is very low; however, if your employer is irresponsible, you may be left susceptible to developing a debilitating and life-altering condition as a result.

Silica Dust Claims

If you’ve developed a disease as a result of working with RCS, you may be able to make an industrial disease claim. Even if the company you worked for has ceased trading, you can still make a claim. The amount of compensation you may be awarded varies from case to case.

It’s important to note that there is a time limit of three years for you to claim against your employer. This means in order for your claim to be successful, you need to begin the claims process within three years of the court determining that it’s reasonable for you to be aware of your disease and to realise that it’s work-related.

Most of the time, silica dust claims are settled out of court, but occasionally, they may go to court.

Make an Industrial Disease Claim with OH Parsons

At OH Parsons, we are experts in industrial disease claims. Our highly experienced lawyers are on hand to help you navigate the silica dust claims process and help you get the compensation you’re owed.

We have a proven track record and operate on a no win no fee basis. This means we won’t charge you upfront, and if your claim is unsuccessful, we won’t charge you at all.

To find out more about how we might be able to help you with a silica dust industrial disease claim, please contact us or call us on 0800 526 368.

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