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Is artificial stone responsible for a resurgence of silicosis diagnoses?

On 1 July 2024, Australia will become the first country in the world to prohibit the use, supply and manufacture of all engineered stone. 

A more affordable choice than granite or marble for those buying new kitchens, artificial stone has been rapidly growing in popularity.  In the interests of transparency and full disclosure, I feel obliged to confess that I have just such a worktop at home.

The problem with artificial stone lies in the fact that it often contains more than 90% free silica.  That is a significantly greater content of silica than that you would expect to find in marble (around 2%) or granite (10-45%).

Silicosis: a progressive and debilitating lung disease

When inhaled, silica has the potential to cause silicosis, a progressive and debilitating lung disease.  With a diagnosis comes the potential of a whole host of related problems and risk, including chest infections, arthritis, kidney disease and tuberculosis.  Those diagnosed with silicosis are also at a far greater risk of going on to develop lung cancer.

The first signs of silicosis can take years to arise following first exposure. Often it is only diagnosed decades after an individual last worked in the industry.  The fine dust caused by grinding, cutting and finishing stone, once inhaled, causes irreparable and progressive damage to the lungs.  Because of the high silica content in artificial stone worktops and the huge dose to which workers are exposed when forming and finishing it, the disease is often arising far sooner, and causing severe disability at a much earlier stage than usual.

Australia's ban on engineered stone

In Australia, where hundreds of cases have been identified, the ban is perhaps unsurprising in a country which seen huge numbers of miners diagnosed, resulting in claims under the Workers Compensation Scheme. 

There is still a large mining contingent in Australia where annual health checks and screening are carried out in an attempt to identify early signs of the disease in those exposed.  In the UK, where the mining industry collapsed in the 1980’s and 90’s, the HSE have been reporting ever decreasing cases of deaths and new cases over the last 15 years. 

A worrying uptick in silicosis cases in the UK

However, HSE annual statistics have reported a worrying uptick in cases of silicosis over the last 2 years that might hint at a problem emerging here in the UK.  Already, a handful of cases of silicosis have been identified in the UK amongst those working with artificial stone. 

Only time will tell whether the Australian problem is replicated here in the UK.  Much will depend on worker and employer habits and on raising awareness.  Our workplace regulations here in the UK mandate avoidance, and where that is not possible, reduction of exposures to the lowest level practicable. 

Exposure to silica is subject to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002.  Whilst a workplace exposure limit of 0.1mg/m3 applies in the UK, it is widely accepted that exposures at this level should not be regarded as ‘safe’. For context, the exposure limits which apply in the US and Australia are 0.05mg/m3. In other words, the UK allows employers to expose their employees to twice the respirable silica than is permitted in Australia or the United States.

Often, the cases that I see as an occupational disease solicitor involve simple errors on the part of employers (and sometimes employees), in not taking the most basic steps to avoid exposure.  Clients include construction workers, stone masons and tunnellers, whose primary complaint is often that there is a lack of suitable respiratory masks.  Little thought is given to the lack of any attempt to reduce the dust at source, whether by extraction or suppression.  Putting up an enclosure to contain the dust and avoid exposing passers-by only concentrates exposures to those carrying out the work.  Such ignorance points to a lack of training and a failure to follow HSE guidance about safe working practices.

Avoiding silicosis exposure sensible for employees and employers alike

It is not only essential that silicosis exposure is avoided in terms of medical outcomes for the sufferer; it is economically sensible for both employees and employers alike.  Workers who develop silicosis face becoming dependant on families for care and support. The disabling effects of the disease often affect the ability of workers to continue to earn a living.  Businesses who expose their workers to uncontrolled silica face potential claims and higher EL insurance premiums. 

Avoiding exposure to silica is key

Silicosis is a devastating and cruel disease causing irreparable damage. Avoiding exposure to silica is key. Time (and I fear, an increasing numbers of casualties) will tell whether that means artificial stone should be banned here in the UK as it will be in Australia.

Advice for those Exposed to Silica:

Many people working in industry will have been exposed to some form of silica dust during their working life.  Most will never develop the disease because the effect of silica exposure affects different people in different ways.  Silicosis is not inevitable.

However, symptoms of the disease can take many years (often decades) after exposure to come to light.  It therefore is important to make sure that a record of potential exposure/s have been kept, to enable quick and easy access to the information in the future event that you need to build evidence for any legal claims against an employer. 

Silica Exposure Register

To help, we have a developed a register that allows individuals to record periods of employment, the employers’ details and what sort of exposures might have occurred during that time. Read more here

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell’s expertise in supporting those exposed to silica at our dedicated silicosis claims section.