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More than 1000 workers a year could die due to inadequate silica safeguards

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Credit: Jawad Qasrawi/Hazards magazine

Hundreds of thousands of workers are being put at risk and more than 1000 could die every year due to inadequate safeguards for a workplace dust known to cause cancer and other diseases, according to research by University of Stirling academics.

Respirable crystalline silica is a dust created during work operations involving stone, rock, concrete, brick, mortar, plaster and industrial sand. Silica is second only to asbestos as a cause of occupational cancer deaths and exposure to it via inhalation can cause a range of other illnesses including silicosis, tuberculosis, kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and arthritis.

The research, carried out by Professor Rory O’Neill and Professor Andrew Watterson of the University of Stirling’s Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety Research Group, responds to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s resistance to the tightening of the current silica exposure standard, which regulates the amount of silica that workers can safely be exposed to in the workplace.

The HSE has argued that technological limitations make monitoring below the current exposure standard impractical. In addition, potentially affected industries such as fracking have argued that the cost of implementing these new controls would be prohibitive.

Professor Rory O’Neill said: "The HSE says monitoring technology isn’t good enough yet to measure lower levels of silica dust, so we must stick with the same deadly, higher but measurable standard. It is wrong on both counts. The increasingly toothless safety watchdog is regurgitating the line promoted by the industry lobby, placing vested interests above workers’ health."

"Modern science can obtain and analyse dust on Mars. If HSE’s science can’t obtain and analyse adequately one of the most commonly encountered and deadly workplace dust exposures here on Earth, you have to ask who on Earth is the watchdog protecting?"

In the US, the HSE’s equivalent, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), is arguing for a rule change to halve the exposure standard. OSHA has also stated that monitoring a tighter exposure standard is technically feasible and, as well as saving thousands of lives, would deliver huge economic savings, rather than job losses.

Professor Andrew Watterson said: "OSHA says a tighter standard is perfectly possible, can be monitored in the workplace and would save hundreds of lives and billions of dollars each year. Canadian provinces already monitor and enforce a tighter standard still."

"The current lax legal occupational exposure standard in the UK guarantees another generation will be blighted by entirely preventable, deadly and disabling conditions. Yet the HSE is actively promoting an industry-supported but unsustainable argument in the UK and in Europe that the current standard must stay."

Notes for editors
Background information

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Notes to editors:

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The UK and the US share the same 0.1 mg/m³ workplace exposure standard for respirable crystalline silica. The US regulator OSHA says its standard is over four decades old and based on what we knew about silica in 1968. In September 2013, it laid out in the Federal Register its case for the new, more protective 0.05 mg/m³ silica exposure standard. The HSE has argued against this improved standard, half the current level, both in the UK and in the European Commission.


The University of Stirling’s Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety Research Group (OEHSRG):

The OEHSRG is a cross-departmental and inter-disciplinary group of staff which includes policy researchers, social scientists, chemists, biologists, nurses, biochemists, public health physicians and occupational physicians who research and publish on issues affecting the workplace and the wider environment field.

For more information on the OEHSRG, please visit

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