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Academics call on HSE to tighten silica dust safeguards

Stone dust Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The harmful dust can be created during work with stone, rock, concrete and plaster

Academics have called on regulators to tighten workplace safeguards against harmful silica dust.

Hundreds of thousands of workers are put at risk and 1,000 could die every year due to exposure to harmful workplace dust, according to a new study from the University of Stirling.

The dust, created during work involving stone, rock, concrete and plaster, can cause a range of illnesses if inhaled.

However the Health and Safety Executive said tighter limits are not practical.

According to Profs Rory O'Neill and Andrew Watterson of the University of Stirling's Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety Research Group (OEHSRG), crystalline silica is second only to asbestos as a cause of occupational cancer deaths.

Exposure to it can cause a range of other illnesses including silicosis, tuberculosis, kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and arthritis.

'Deadly dust'

Currently, a workplace exposure limit of 0.1 milligrams per cubic metre is set in the UK under health and safety law.

The same limit is set in the US, but the American regulator OSHA has argued in favour of cutting it by half, as it is based on research dating back to 1968.

The OEHSRG academics want the HSE to follow suit and tighten standards, but the British regulator is opposed to the move due to technological limitations in monitoring silica levels that precisely.

Prof O'Neill said: "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, who on Earth they are protecting?"

Prof Watterson added: "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."

Workplace controls

A spokeswoman for the Health and Safety Executive said the body focused on ensuring the correct controls were in place in workplaces.

"When these are in place silica dust is usually reduced to significantly below the exposure limit," she said.

"The advice HSE has received indicates that it is not practical or achievable to consistently and reliably measure real workplace samples of respirable crystalline silica to significantly lower levels.

"This is because the technical samplers currently used suffer from interference and poor precision at these low measurement masses.

"Measurement below the current workplace exposure limit would require complex sampling and analysis processes which have not been validated."

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