Clear and Present Danger- Silica Dust, is it the next Asbestos?

“In a Construction business, a large number of activities involve the use of materials which have silica, such as concrete, sand, and soil to name a few.
The closest comparison in our industry is asbestos. Both can cause lung cancer and associated respiratory diseases.  The risks of being exposed to asbestos are now well known and the awareness and control in construction is much improved.  We have started the journey to manage and control activities which include silica, with awareness and education for our people, ensuring that respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is worn and that we use water suppression to damp down the dust to prevent it getting airborne.

The problem as I see it, is that not all the people in our industry see it as a real and present danger to them.

What I mean by this is that the effects are not immediate.  Like asbestos the effects of respirable crystalline silica has a long latency period, by which time it will be too late for individuals.  The mindset and behaviours are “I will be alright”.  If there was a risk of immediate harm, say a broken leg, then the behaviours would be different.

Occupational respiratory diseases always have personal impact with me.  Not that I have been directly affected, but having indirect experience from my early career.  Before I moved into construction, my early career was in coal mining and the corresponding risk was that of coal dust.  I will always remember seeing some of the older miners, who when I first met them were big men.  Then later I met some who were suffering Pneumoconiosis, a lung disease. They looked like old frail men even though some were not actually old.  They had oxygen bottles and nasal cannulas just to enable them to shuffle across a room, and so weak they could not get up a set of stairs.

That image and its consequences is why we need to take silica dust on construction sites seriously. I wish I could introduce those old miners to youngsters today joining the construction industry, but sadly they are no longer around.

I want people to remember that just because you cannot see the hazard doesn’t mean the risk is not there. With regards to silica- the dust you can’t see is the most harmful.”

Peter Jones is the Deputy Head of Safety, Health & Environment (SHE) at Osborne.