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Not just dust – Rail’s role in cross-industry drive to tackle silica dust

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Representatives from the rail sector were involved in a cross-industry debate to develop a new, more collaborative approach to controlling silica dust in the workplace.

High above the part-transport hub, part-construction site that presently is London Bridge station, a common hazard facing rail workers was being discussed.

Sat around a table on the 34th floor of The Shard, representatives from the Office of Road and Rail (ORR), Crossrail and Network Rail spelled out the challenge they face to prevent workers from breathing in silica dust.

Whether through handling ballast dust, the tunnelling process or cutting concrete as part of a station redevelopment, the scope for exposure is wide-ranging and varied. Yet rail isn’t alone in having to face up to the health risks posed by respirable crystalline silica (RCS).

That is why experts from construction, mineral products and various trade, health and industry associations also joined in the discussion, sharing how they tackle the issue in their workplaces.

The debate was facilitated by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and aimed to identify good practice that could be used throughout industry to deal with RCS.

It coincided with the launch by IOSH of new guidance for businesses on RCS, as part of its No Time to Lose occupational cancer awareness campaign.


An estimated 500,000 people are exposed to RCS at work in the UK. According to Imperial College London research, around 800 people in Britain a year die from lung cancer caused by prolonged exposure to RCS in the workplace, with 900 new cases being diagnosed annually.

Professor John Cherrie, from Heriot-Watt University and the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh, who took part in the discussion, said many employees are currently being exposed to RCS above the acceptable limit in the UK and throughout the world.

He said, ‘Construction is the biggest industry where people can get exposed to RCS, but anyone working in a workplace that uses mineral products may face exposure. It could be in foundries, at brickworks and quarries or premises where stone products are manufactured.

‘Dust can often be accepted as something that just naturally occurs as part of work processes, and it shouldn’t be. If you can see dust you need to do something about it.

‘Getting people to change their attitude to dust and take this issue seriously is key. This discussion was a real opportunity to shape how we deal with silica dust across industry in the years to come.’

Kevin Stevens, health and safety manager at the Mineral Products Association, said much work to prevent RCS exposure has been done in his sector that other industries could learn from it.

He said, ‘Silica dust is one of the oldest occupational health diseases we know of. The common challenge across industry is about educating individuals on the issue.

‘Without question, the information is out there but we need to make sure it is shared among all those who require it.’


The debate heard that much good work is being done across all sectors around RCS, including rail, but that each industry is rarely aware of the measures the others are taking. Dr Claire Dickinson, occupational health programme manager at the ORR, said awareness of silica dust in the rail sector was growing, particularly around the use of track ballast. More work needed to be done to highlight the issue to those working on other construction projects in the rail sector, she added.

Worker on site in MTR tunneling in Hong Kong 26 February, 2016
MTR tunnelling worker

‘We really need to up our game at getting through to the managers and supervisors on track and working at station construction sites,’ she said.

The ORR, Crossrail, Network Rail, CIRAS and MTR Corporation Ltd are among over 100 leading businesses to have pledged support to the No Time to Lose campaign.

Steve Hails, director of health and safety at Crossrail Ltd, spoke of his work to protect employees undertaking sprayed concrete lining (SCL) works, using prevention and dust suppression to minimise RCS exposure.

Modifications to the standard processes and material substitutions were considered from the outset to reduce the use of silica, and therefore the risk of dust exposure.

De-duster units, forced ventilation, spray misters and tools fitted with spray systems have also been used to dampen dust where necessary, with personal respiratory equipment regarded as a last resort.

In making Crossrail’s pledge to No Time to Lose, Steve said, ‘We believe that an effective occupational health programme is essential to the success of the Crossrail programme – good health has a positive effect on employees and the delivery of Crossrail.

‘So we’re pleased to back IOSH’s No Time to Lose campaign, and welcome its focus on one of the most serious occupational health issues facing industry today – managing carcinogenic exposures at work.’

MTR Corporation, meanwhile, has put controls in place to reduce the risk of silica dust exposure during tunnelling work in Hong Kong.

As well as using ventilation and water suppression techniques, such as wet drilling and rock breaking and damping spoil, MTR also regularly monitors silica dust concentrations in its tunnels and carries out health hazard and hygiene checks on workers.

Stephen Pollock, project safety manager at MTR Corporation Ltd, said, ‘MTR’s commitment is tangible. As well as providing extensive information and training to the contractor workforce, we provided free health screening on site for up to 2,000 workers in March.

‘In addition to this, our full- time nurses are available at our construction site to give advice and monitor health controls.’

MTR has also shared good practice around work-related ill health with 450 senior leaders and over 140 safety managers working in its supply chain.

Keith Morey, chair of the IOSH Railway Group and construction, design and management integration manager at Network Rail, also took part in the roundtable meeting.

He said ballast dust has been a major consideration in the rail sector for some time, with the likes of the Ballast Dust Working Group (BDWG) promoting best practice and technology throughout all the main contracting companies on the railways.

‘We must continue to look into ways of reducing exposure to RCS. Simply fencing off the in-question area will not suffice,’ Keith added.

Ballast 2


The cross-industry group agreed to work collaboratively with IOSH to develop a new way of sharing good practice around tackling RCS exposure across industry.

Shelley Frost, executive director of policy at IOSH, said, ‘Dust is not just dust – it can contain elements that are potentially harmful and can cause chronic ill health.

‘We brought together people from very different disciplines so we could really establish a collaborative and collective approach on raising awareness of RCS, and also address some of the current issues.

‘What was really clear is there are many examples of good practice across industry and that should be celebrated. Our responsibility is to break down the barriers that exist in sharing this across all industry.’

Silica dust is one of five common agents associated with work- related cancer registrations and deaths in the UK that IOSH is highlighting through No Time to Lose.

Asbestos, diesel engine exhaust fumes, solar radiation and shift work are the others, with IOSH aiming to get work-related cancer more widely understood and help businesses to take action.

For more information about the campaign, and to download the free resources on RCS, visit www.notimetolose.org.uk or follow @_NTTL on Twitter. Further information about the IOSH Railway Group and its activities can also be found at www.iosh.co.uk/railwaygroup.

Written by Bryan Henesey, media officer at IOSH