On 15th of May 2023, the HSE started its nationwide inspection campaign to target construction workers’ lung health on sites across the country. The HSE said “failure to prevent life-threatening diseases caused by dust at work is unacceptable”.

Supported by the HSE’s Dust Kills campaign, which provides free advice to businesses and workers on the control measures required to prevent exposure to dust, the inspections throughout May, June and July will focus on respiratory risks from exposure to dust.

Each year in the construction industry, there are thousands of preventable cases of irreversible lung disease due to past exposure to dust at work. These diseases can often be life-changing and can result in an early death.

HSE inspectors will visit a range of construction sites to check businesses are taking the necessary action to ensure their workers’ long-term respiratory health is being protected. Through engaging with those on site, the HSE will be making sure employers and the self-employed have considered the job from start to finish, have assessed the risks at each stage and are managing them with effective measures in line with the broad hierarchy of control options such as water suppression, extraction and – as a last resort – Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE). Failure to follow these measures can end up costing the employer dearly as the following example illustrates.


Case study

A London-based building contractor has been fined after failing to plan, manage and monitor work under its control, leading to gross exposure of workers to Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS).

The court heard that the company was undertaking a project that included the refurbishment of a building in London. A proactive site inspection on 5th July 2016 found workers in a basement had been dry cutting approximately 250 bricks to shape them for use in bay windows.

The HSE found that failures in health and safety management had led to numerous issues on site. Workers had not been told about the dangers of inhaling the dust, were not made aware of the correct controls, and the work was not supervised by a competent person.

The company pleaded guilty to breaching Regulation 13(1) of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 and was fined £40,000 and ordered to pay costs of £2313.10.

The HSE said that over 500 construction workers are believed to die from exposure to silica dust every year, making it the biggest risk in the sector after asbestos. This number can be reduced by those in control of the work through adequate planning, managing and monitoring of the work on site.


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Why is it so important to control this construction dust?

Very simply, construction dust can cause cancer and does cause hundreds of deaths each year.


What is silica?

Silica occurs naturally in most rocks, sand and clay and in products made from these, such as bricks and concrete.

When these materials are cut, sanded or carved, they produce a very fine dust, known as respirable crystalline silica (RCS), which can be inhaled deeply into the lungs. There, it can cause damage to health including silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer.

The quantity of silica in materials varies considerably:

– Granite 70–90%

– Concrete, mortar 25–70%

– Tile 30–45%

– Granite 20–45%, typically 30%

– Slate 20–40%

– Brick – up to 30%

– Limestone 2%

– Marble 2%

The industries affected by exposure to RCS include:

– construction and demolition processes;

– quarrying;

– slate mining and slate processing;

– potteries, ceramics, ceramic glaze manufacture, brick and tile manufacture;

– foundries; refractory production and cutting;

– concrete product manufacture;

– monumental and architectural masonry manufacture, stone fireplace and kitchen worktop manufacture;

– grit and abrasive blasting.


What should employers be doing?

Plan who will be required to carry out this work. Contractors, employees – are they competent? Are trade licences required e.g. CITB?

If so, ensure all relevant personnel hold the correct certificates/licences and that they are in date. If you have any doubt, check with the awarding body or issuing board.

Look carefully at the job and consider what hazards could be present.

Consult with the staff who will be doing the work and ask them what they think could be hazardous.

Carry out a risk assessment and consider what control measures are in place and what further controls will be required.

Do not rely on PPE as your first and only way of controlling the hazard. For example, just giving a dust mask to the employee when using a dry-stone saw is not adequate (PPE is your last choice for controlling hazards). The hazard should be dealt with at source; in this case, if – after looking at different options – the stone saw is the only suitable option, use water suppression.

Explain the risk assessment to all involved with the task and the reason why you have implemented those particular control measures. Use real life data from the HSE to reinforce your message and why working as per the risk assessment is important. This video is a perfect example of the resources available: http://www.hse.gov.uk/lung-disease/case-study-stoneworker-terry.htm

Briefly mention the consequences of failing to comply:

– long term ill-health,

– early death,

– both employer and employee involved possibly prosecuted

– heavy financial loss and even the closure of the business.

Your planning will need to include an effective way of monitoring the work for compliance.

By actively involving your workforce in the risk assessment and explaining the reasons for the decisions taken, you will start to build a good health and safety culture.

This is a win/win situation because the workforce will become vigilant and report any faults, which in turn will reduce accidents/ill health. The benefits of this will be less sickness, more production, good reputation, reduced cost to the company and possibly lower insurance premiums.