IOSH's No Time to Lose campaign seeks to raise awareness of occupational cancer focusing on five common agents associated with work-related cancer: asbestos, diesel engine exhaust fumes, silica dust, solar radiation and shiftwork.
Globally, silicosis claimed the lives of more than 46,000 people in 2013 -- that is a very conservative estimate and the reality is likely to be much worse. In Britain, 15 people die each week from lung cancer caused by respirable silica exposure at work.
Our picture of respirable silica exposure is becoming clearer: 500,000 people a year in the UK, five million across the EU, 2.2 million in the US, ten million in India and 23 million in China.
IOSH's consultation with the Construction Dust Partnership provided us with some interesting insights into the key issues for the construction industry. For me three stood out: a lack of priority by the organisation on silica exposure; an over-reliance on protective masks; and poor awareness of the risk among the workforce. (Only 16% of construction professionals think workers know about the health risks of silica dust.)
Imagine a world where "ban the facemask" was as successful as "ban the broom"
Raising awareness, guidance on prevention and providing briefing material all help and 10,000 of you downloaded our silica materials in March alone. The organisational pledges, our roundtable launch, increasing exchange of case studies and high-profile events such as the Construction Health Summit should help to keep this issue in people's minds.
There is, however, one action that I believe will have a profound effect on the likelihood of exposing workers to silica dust: ban the mask.
Seeing workers on pavements, at kerbsides cutting slabs and kerbstones, surrounded by clouds of silica dust while wearing ear defenders, gloves, goggles and facemasks has become the norm. We have become too reliant and too accepting that the facemask is the control when, even if it has been correctly chosen, fitted properly and is well maintained, it is rather indicative of a failure of control.
The dust clouds are preventable -- employers can take reasonably practicable steps to enable these workers to undertake their tasks without the need for masks. To name a few: use a different product (no silica); offsite manufacturing to prevent cutting; buy equipment that prevents dust (suppression/extraction). Employers should specify these preventive control measures; workers should ask why a mask is necessary if one is provided.
The Wates Group and many other construction contractors' successful "ban the broom" initiatives have been transformational in practice and culture on construction sites.
Imagine a world where "ban the facemask" was as successful. What would happen if facemasks were no longer an accepted control measure and all of us were challenged to control dust to the point where facemasks were redundant? Would it make you think and behave differently?