Silicosis: A suitable subject for sharing best practice

Joe Simpson looks at the topic of silicosis, and how a key part of InstallerSHOW’s ethos is to educate and inform on challenging subjects.

There has been a lot about silicosis in the news over the past five years or so, driven by a high profile class action in Australia, and a more recent court case concerning a leading Spanish worktop manufacturer.

For InstallerSHOW, providing education and guidance around challenging topics such as silicosis is a fundamental part of the event’s DNA. Quite simply, we think Installer SHOW’s primary value lies in disseminating best practice and expert guidance on important commercial, and contracting, subjects.

Silicosis is a long-term lung disease caused by inhaling crystalline silica dust, usually over many years. Silica is naturally found in certain types of stone, sand, and clay. Working with these materials can create a very fine dust that can be inhaled easily. Once inside the lungs, it causes inflammation and gradually leads to areas of hardened and scarred lung tissue, known as fibrosis. Lung tissue that is scarred in this way doesn’t function properly… and this condition is largely untreatable.

In the UK, the NHS has identified people who work in stone masonry, stone cutting, and worktop manufacturing as being particularly at risk. In Australia the government has gone further, becoming the first country in the world to ban engineered stone.

Manufactured by mixing crushed stone with a resin binder, engineered stone is used for worktops, and other surface applications. While it is an attractive, durable, and affordable alternative to natural stone, it can release fine silica dust into the air when cut. Those pushing for a ban argued that engineered stone workers were significantly over-represented in silicosis cases. So, in December 2023, Australia agreed to prohibit the use, supply, and manufacture of all engineered stone, irrespective of crystalline silica content, from 1st July 2024.

While silicosis is an incurable, progressively disabling, and sometimes fatal disease, it is preventable with the correct safety measures – such as mandatory wet cutting and the use of effective PPE such as respiratory masks. Other typical safety measures include installing effective ventilation and filtration, and working with CNC machines and water-injected tools.

In light of this, The British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) says that there is no reason for Britain to follow Australia’s lead in banning engineered stone worktops, explaining that the risk of silicosis from working with quartz and other engineered stones can be managed out.

While most engineered stone used in the UK is imported, finishing of engineered stone, particularly for kitchens, has risen significantly in the UK. This is carried out in both small-scale artisanal operations, and also in large industrial units including one, in Scunthorpe, that is thought to be the largest engineered stone factory in Europe.

Lord Younger, a junior minister in the Department for Work & Pensions, has set out the Government’s current position on silicosis: “The HSE is not currently considering restricting the use of engineered stone. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations already require employers to put in place measures to prevent workers being exposed to respirable crystalline silica. This includes adequate controls ensuring compliance with the workplace exposure limit and health surveillance identifying potential ill health. HSE keeps requirements for reporting occupational diseases under review and is not currently making silicosis reportable.”

However, we should expect the silicosis issue to remain in the spotlight. BOHS president Alex Wilson has stated: “Sadly, there is reasonable probability that there are more cases that have not been detected or reported. Accurate diagnosis of silicosis is difficult, and it can easily be mistaken for a more common complaint – sarcoidosis, for example.

“Like so many occupational diseases, it is really quite easy to prevent, but impossible to cure. It’s vital that anyone potentially being exposed in the engineered stone industry has access to appropriate medical surveillance, but more importantly, it’s vital that proper dust controls are used at all times.”

For some, this approach does not go far enough. Canterbury-based kitchen fitter Herringbone has unilaterally decided to stop selling quartz worktops. It is unlikely to be the last to adopt a safety-first approach.

For producers such as Technistone, the safety of workers who produce and fabricate engineered stone is fundamental. The company says that it tries very hard to educate employees and partners about how to work safely with engineered stone. “We constantly stress the basic rules for safely working with our materials, which include cutting and polishing materials under water, installing ventilating and vacuuming systems, testing and filtering the air and, of course, conscientiously using quality personal protection equipment,” says Technistone.

But the problems surrounding implementing an effective and unbroken safety regime are underlined by Iron Rock. “Respirable silica dust is really small, typically not the visible dust you kick up at a job site. Products that don’t contain crystalline silica won’t cause silicosis. There are mortars and grouts available now that don’t. Tile and stone only do if you dry grind/cut them. There are limits out there considered safe and testing can be conducted to determine if you are above or below them during a certain activity. Educate yourself, protect yourself!” comments Dan Marvin, VP of Operations.

Some manufacturers are trying to get ahead of the problem. Technistone, for instance, will not supply materials to stone masons who do not cut engineered stone slabs using underwater cutting techniques.

However, as we all know, it is hard to drive safety standards across such a fragmented sector. With so many different fabricators and installers, all cutting and installing myriad materials featuring different resins, binders, natural stones, glass, and man-made inclusions, it can be very hard to set standards, let alone implement them.

That is why InstallerSHOW has such a vital role to play. The central aim is to inspire and explain, not preach and shame. We understand that developing best practice in fast-moving and dynamic sectors – such as conglomerate worktops and bespoke quartz fabrication and installation – is both difficult and constantly evolving.

Our goal is to provide a respected, independent platform for sector leaders to showcase safe and effective practices, both in the factory and on site. Tool and equipment companies will also be able to demonstrate the benefits of technologies such as dust extraction systems, wet cutting, CNC routing, water-jet, and precision polishing. Material experts will also be on hand to explain the aesthetic and technical differences between the many worktop options, and explain the safest and most reliable methods of cutting, shaping, polishing, and sealing.

Whether you prefer porcelain panels or quartz composites, InstallerSHOW is perfect place to meet and mingle with your peers, see best practice in operation, and build a better business for you and your employees going forward.

Joe Simpson is a renowned tile expert whose writing is featured in publications around the world. His website, Diary of a Tile Addict, offers valuable insight into all things tile-related.

Installer Kitchens & Bathrooms is set to debut at InstallerSHOW 2024, offering a blend of technology, tools, innovation, and inspiration for attendees. This new addition will provide a packed content programme across two theatres, aimed at bringing the industry closer through education, knowledge sharing, and networking opportunities. It is backed by a number of organisations including the BMA, BiKBBI, NKBA, AMDEA UK and the Unified Water Label, as well as a host of leading manufacturers.

Register for your free ticket to InstallerSHOW 2024 here.

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