Simon Ellis, a respiratory disease solicitor at Hugh James, discusses how exposure to crystalline silica dust through working with fine particles of sand, cement or limestone may be the emerging respiratory disease in the workplace.
Many of you will know about the harm posed by asbestos exposure. The dangers are well documented and hundreds of people across the UK are diagnosed with some form of asbestos disease each week.
I have worked with many families over the years who have suffered as a result of asbestos exposure, but a little known threat is beginning to emerge in the form of crystalline silica exposure. Crystalline silica, like asbestos, is a naturally occurring substance and is a basic component of soil, sand, granite, cement and many others. Thankfully, it is not easy to be exposed as the substance has to be fine enough to inhale, and even then it would need to have been inhaled in fairly large quantities.
Those at risk of illness tend to be people who have worked in cement, foundry and quarry works or individuals who have cut stone, drilled rocks, carried out sand blasting or manufactured building materials. The health implications can be fatal. The most common illness is known as silicosis, but many will simply be diagnosed as having respiratory diseases, especially if they have a history of smoking. In many cases the treating doctor may not have appreciated the possible link between the work history of the patient and their chest problems.
Those diagnosed with respiratory disease after working with high levels of crystalline silica dust will suffer from severe scarring of the lungs, causing breathing difficulties and in some cases death. The damage caused to the lungs is incurable and also means that the likelihood of infection is higher, with tuberculosis a real threat.
So is crystalline silica the next asbestos? The short answer is no. Although hazardous, and very serious for those affected, it is only going to impact on certain individuals who have worked in very specific job roles. Asbestos is slightly different as it can affect all of us, even if we have not worked in a traditional asbestos industry. Most of us are complacent about asbestos but it could form part of the walls you are sitting closest to now or be insulating the pipes in your place of work. Asbestos, like crystalline silica, is deemed safe if left undisturbed. However, asbestos instantly becomes hazardous once damaged. Even a crack or rupture will caused asbestos particles to become airborne. Crystalline silica is also easily damaged, but the dust only becomes harmful if inhaled in large quantities.
The illnesses caused by asbestos exposure are in some cases similar to those caused by crystalline silica as they can result in scarring of the lungs and impeded function. The one big difference between both substances is the asbestos related cancer known as mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is, by far, the most severe of all the illnesses as there is no known cure and is fatal. Mesothelioma can also be a consequence of low exposure to asbestos, which means people who have not worked directly with asbestos can be affected. Occupations affected have included hospital workers, teachers and cleaners.
Millions of pounds have been paid to individuals and family members who have either suffered or lost a loved one as a result of asbestos exposure. The amount of compensation paid to those families may not be replicated in cases of crystalline silica exposure but it would appear that there are cases to be answered. If an employer has exposed their workforce to harmful levels of crystalline silica then they may have caused preventable illnesses and shortened an individual’s life expectancy, meaning families lose their loved ones sooner than expected.