Following the first part of its safety campaign on common safety hazards, such as falling from heights, the UK’s Health and Safety Executive has honed in on another element of construction safety: particulates. With literally microscopic detail, the HSE is shifting its focus to these inconspicuous hazards, and the threat they pose to employee health over the long term.
While the dangers of asbestos are well established, our increasing distance from its active use makes education and awareness even more important. Meanwhile the risks of more innocuous particulates, such as silica and wood dust, are under-appreciated. The new HSE campaign is a vital opportunity to publicise these risks, and ultimately to help save lives.
The presence of particulates in the workplace has been known about for decades. The phasing out of asbestos from widespread use in the 1980s followed clear links to mesothelioma, an otherwise rare and deadly cancer. Yet the everyday nature of working with wood, brick, plaster, cement and other construction materials can lead people to take unnecessary risks.
Sometimes, workers aren’t even aware of these risks in the first place. The HSE has previously been criticised for its guidelines on particulates, particularly silica, where its ‘safe limit’ is 0.1mg per cubic metre of air. The HSE has claimed that this is the lowest limit that is realistically achievable, but even this level of exposure is considered both dangerous and avoidable.
This does not stop many independent contractors from avoiding RPE altogether, either by workers’ individual choice or by lack of provision by their bosses. One company in 2015 was fined for repeated breaches of workplace safety laws despite prior warnings, including poorly fitted RPE, a lack of RPE and poor silica dust management. The fine was just £2,500.
Silica dust is a common constituent of plaster, cement, brick, stone and wood, among other materials. The process of drilling, sawing, cutting, blasting or breaking these materials is highly likely release microscopic silica particles. Invisible to the human eye, these sharp-edged particulates make their way into the deepest recesses of our lungs, causing damage that can manifest as lung cancer or other diseases later in life.
Despite seeming anachronistic, asbestos too remains an issue. The building material was banned in the UK far later than many other countries, and the UK continues to lead the world in asbestos related death and illness. While commercial buildings may have a stronger awareness of the presence of asbestos in their buildings, public and residential structures pose an equivalent risk.
The widely used decorative coating Artex used to contain asbestos, and is a hidden danger in many DIY and contract renovations. Asbestos is also worryingly common in school buildings, many of which were built or rebuilt in the 70s and 80s. Schools often lack both a comprehensive asbestos management plan and the money to effectively maintain and assess asbestos, making any work potentially dangerous to the contractors, teachers and students.
The HSE’s campaign is a welcome step forward in acknowledging the issues thousands face on a daily basis. But it’s still remarkable that a disease first noted some 2500 years ago is still causing as many as 500 deaths a year in the UK alone, on top of 800 dust-related lung cancer deaths. And the ongoing deaths in numerous high profile incidents, perhaps most famously the 9/11 first responders, have not seemed to change these patterns of behaviour.
Employers and employees need to be made more acutely aware of the risks of occupational dust inhalation. Nominal fines and the HSE’s Fee For Intervention is evidently not enough of a deterrent for businesses. It may also be the case that small businesses need help obtaining suitable RPE, either through grants or subsidies. With luck, the HSE will be a driving force in making the UK construction industry a world leader in compliance.
Plan and protect
Until then, however, the onus is on employers to put the necessary protocols in place, and provide suitable equipment. The focus should always be on prevention, rather than the cure offered by RPE. The easiest way to reduce the respiration of dust is to turn it into slurry, although in cases such as pouring concrete this isn’t always feasible.
However, controls can be put in place at the design and sourcing stage, in order to best protect workers. Stone and timber can be purchased pre-drilled and cut to size, and several alternatives materials can be used that do not contain respirable crystalline silica (RCS). These include durable plastics in place of concrete, and a number of sandblasting substitutes.
Where RPE (such as dust hoods or breathing apparatus) is necessary, it should be properly face fitted to each individual, and rated at P3 or higher. Fitting is a common oversight, with masks often sitting loosely on individuals due to beards and face contours. Ultimately, RPE should be taken as seriously as using a gas mask – if it doesn’t fit properly, it’s not much good.
With air pollution in London and elsewhere making the news recently, public awareness of the dangers of particulates is at an all-time high. Now is the perfect opportunity for employers and advocates alike to highlight the dangers in the workplace. Dust is a problem we can deal with, but the impetus needs to come from all quarters if we’re going to make a difference.
This post was contributed by SAMS Ltd, a health and safety consultancy & training company based in Kent, England. SAMS offers online asbestos awareness courses for businesses and individuals, alongside other online and classroom courses and consultancy services.