By Richard Willis, Willis Insurance and Risk Management

Silicosis is a long-term work-related lung disease caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica. Through lack of understanding, the seriousness of this condition can be underestimated by firms working within an ‘at risk’ sector. However, as the long-term effects of this debilitating illness have come to light over recent years, employers must take the necessary steps to protect not only the life of the business, but also the life of their employees.

The effects of silicosis may only become evident 10-20 years after exposure, meaning that although the risk of harm to employees may not be imminent, firms must act immediately to protect not only their employees, but also themselves from personal injury claims by following the regulations and procedures outlined by the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI).

The act of grinding, drilling and cutting into materials such as soil, sand, granite, concrete and rock creates a profusion of fine dust with contains crystalline silica particles. The inhalation of these particles is known as respirable crystalline silica (RCS).

It is therefore employers within the construction, masonry, foundry, glass manufacturing, ceramics, quarrying sectors, or other businesses generating dusts that could contain RCS, who must take note of their responsibility to control the risks of silicosis amongst workers.

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations (2003) outlined by HSENI require employers to control substances that can harm the health of employees, such as RCS, and specify limits for daily exposure which firms must adhere to.

Measures to reduce exposure will vary, but employers must monitor dust levels to assess the risk of exposure to RCS and ensure that meticulous control measures are put in place.

The effects of an employee illness, such as silicosis, has a financial impact on every party involved. It will affect not only the employee and their ability to carry out their job role but can also mean recruiting a new member of staff, paying out statutory sick pay, or covering the cost of any potential legal charges incurred in the instance that regulations have not been adhered to.

RCS can be a complex issue and firms should seek professional guidance if assistance is required regarding their legal responsibilities as employers. The ability to adhere to the correct procedures and regulations will ensure the protection of employee wellbeing and the future of the business.