Silicosis has been a hot topic in the media recently, with national news, TV and radio highlighting the potential risks and speculating on its potential long-term ramifications. But how do we begin to project what the future impact of extended exposure to Respiratory Crystalline Silica (RSC) would look like?
It is a human tendency to look to the past to make sense of where we now find ourselves. Often there is no precedent from which we can draw, leaving us treading a new and uncertain path. In the case of Silicosis however we are not alone in the wilderness. We can draw on the statistics and information compiled for another respiratory illness, Pneumoconiosis, and in doing so we have an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and lay the foundations for preserving our future health.
Coal worker pneumoconiosis (CWP) known colloquially as Black lung is a terminal respiratory condition caused by long term exposure to Coal dust. It has been well studied and documented over the years, and provides a valuable comparison by which to highlight the dangers of Respiratory Crystalline Silica.
According to the figures issued by the health and safety executive (HSE) , in 2017 the number of new cases of CWP assessed for Industrial Injury Disablement Benefit (IIDB) was 130 . The average number of deathS from CWP over the last 10 years have averaged 135 annually (1).
How can we learn from CWP and apply our knowledge to exposure to Silica?
The NHS website describes silicosis as “ a long term lung disease caused by inhaling large amounts of crystalline silica dust, usually over many years. Silica is a substance naturally found in certain types of stone, rock, sand and clay. Working with these materials can create a very fine dust that can be easily inhaled.Once inside the lungs, the dust particles are attacked by the immune system.This causes swelling (inflammation) and gradually leads to areas of hardened and scarred lung tissue (fibrosis). Lung tissue that’s scarred in this way doesn’t function properly” (2).
According to the HSE statistics: the number of deaths over the last 10 years from Silicosis average at 30 annually. (1)To put this into context, the ORR list the number of rail workforce fatalities between 2017-2018 as 2 (3). Therefore It is not inconceivable that if left unchecked, in 20 years the number of railway worker deaths caused by silicosis could be 10-20 times greater per annum than the number of workers killed on track. So what are dangers to railway workers and how do we reduce the risks?
Looking at it from a railway perspective, the average track worker is constantly working around ballast which is by its nature heavy in silica. During ballast drops, especially in dry weather the silica dust is widely dispersed and being invisible to the human eye presents a real danger.
So, how much silica would the average railway worker inhale over a 25 year career? It is probably impossible to estimate, but if we can take anything from the plight of the coal miners, we don’t want to wait 25 years to find out.
Each year the rail becomes a safer and safer place to work as new innovations are mandated. Money is invested in practices and equipment that produce tangible , chartable outcomes. If adopting a practice this year will result in a 5% drop in injury or fatality next year then it is adopted, and rightly so. It is ironic perhaps that potentially the biggest health and safety issue for the rail industry is not something that can be tracked and charted in a year, or even 5 years. If we take the example of the coal industry, it may take 25-30 years before we can see the damage that has been done, and by that point it will be too late. The industry needs to take action today to ensure that its workers can not only enjoy a safe and injury free career but also a long and healthy retirement.
So what can we do to prevent silicosis becoming as devastating as Black Lung?
The answer is incredibly simple. If you are required to work in an environment where silica dust may be present then you must insist that adequate respiratory protective equipment is provided. If you are always clean shaven then this can be as simple as a paper dust mask, however if you have any facial hair at all then a paper dust mask would not be adequate, due to facial hair impeding a good seal between the mask and face. For those with facial hair the only type approved option is a positive airfed respirator. The helmet provides a positive pressure air seal which not only filters all dust and debris out, but blows cool air over the visor of the mask preventing it from steaming up during heavy work and keeping you cool at the same time.
In conclusion by taking simple steps now we can safeguard the future health and well-being of our workforce. Investing in the railway means investing not only in its infrastructure but also its people.