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The dangers of silica dust and the importance of early testing

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Dr Dan Hegarty, CEO of Express Medicals, explains the dangers of silica dust and the importance of early testing

The railway industry is becoming increasingly aware of the dangers to workers caused by the silica particles contained within ballast dust. It is a national concern, with silica dust-related lung cancer killing around 800 people each year.

It is a threat to health that some have likened to the danger from asbestos – and employers have reacted responsibly to avert a similar long-term health catastrophe. Last year, the RailStaff Awards’ health and safety category was won by one contractor’s far-reaching silica dust awareness campaign.

Workers inhale silica dust when handling ballast, or when they drill into concrete, bricks or tiles. It’s a real risk in many common construction tasks.

Now rail companies are working closely with occupational health providers, ensuring their testing includes specific silica tests to maintain a high level of commitment to staff safety.

Express Medicals CEO Dr Dan Hegarty.
Express Medicals CEO Dr Dan Hegarty.

Silica tests

Express Medicals Ltd tests for silicosis and related conditions at clinics throughout the UK, and is seeing an increase in customer requests.

“Testing for silicosis is an important feature of railway medicals and we work closely with a number of companies to ensure workers are silica free, or to find out if they should receive early intervention and treatment if we find they’ve been exposed to levels that might cause harm,” explains Dr Dan Hegarty, chief executive of Express Medicals.

“We anticipate a significant rise in the number of these medicals throughout 2018 as awareness of the various diseases caused by dust-borne particles continues to be of concern.

“It’s vital to test early, to help prevent the onset of silicosis.”

Silicosis is a serious lung disease which can affect any workers who breathe in silica dust. In most cases the condition develops over a long period of time. However, if a large amount of silica is inhaled over a short period of time, for example a few months, then it is possible to suffer from a rapid onset acute form of silicosis. Sufferers usually present with a cough and increasing breathing difficulties upon exercise.

There is an increased incidence of some other medical problems in people diagnosed with silicosis including COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) which also causes breathing difficulties; RA (rheumatoid arthritis); TB (tuberculosis) and lung cancer. HSE has produced a guidance leaflet ‘G404. Health surveillance for those exposed to respirable crystalline silica (RCS)’.

The role of correct PPE, including well-fitting face masks, is paramount. A good occupational health (OH) provider will also help employers ensure they’re meeting their requirements under the COSHH Regulations 2002 by contributing to briefing sessions to advise on occupational lung diseases, including silicosis.

Four point process

Express Medicals has created a four-point process to assist managers. You should consider:

  1. How best to educate your workers about the risks from silica;
  2. Who to include in your health surveillance programme;
  3. Who to appoint as the responsible person to organise and oversee the programme;
  4. The appointment of an OH provider.

The OH provider will act as a significant advisory partner to your health and safety staff and the management team. Its services will include questionnaires, medical examinations, chest X-rays (when appropriate) and liaison with GPs / other health professionals.

The role of an OH provider in relation to silicosis falls within the much wider remit of health and wellbeing, and health surveillance. The benefits of providing health and wellbeing services are increasingly recognised by employers because, in helping to protect the health of a workforce, such services positively affect morale, retention and performance. A workforce that is cared for will be more motivated, more efficient and will likely boost company performance.

A good OH provider will provide valuable up-to-date information to your health and safety staff and management team. They are essential partners in developing effective health and wellbeing programmes, to ensure staff are motivated and efficient.

Symptoms of silicosis

  • Persistent cough
  • Persistent shortness of breath
  • Weakness and tiredness

Information courtesy of NHS.uk

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