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Silicosis – the Unknown Killer

Silicosis is a silent killer that many people may suffer with but few are diagnosed.

Many people will be aware of the dangers of asbestos dust. Asbestos was widely used in the construction industry.  The dust and fibres given off mean it is the biggest killer of UK construction workers.

But what about other dusts such as silica?

Silica and Other Dust In the Workplace

It is well known that coal dust causes harm to coal miners. Diseases such as COPD, bronchitis and emphysema have caused death and illness to many thousands.

But from mining, construction and other jobs an equally deadly disease can be caused – Silicosis.

This condition can be caused by breathing in crystalline silica. Breathing it in can cause diseases like silicosis, asthma, emphysema and lung cancer.

Particle Size

The size of the particles of silica given off was recently considered by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).

A recent article by John Saunders, principal ventilation scientist at the HSE’s Health & Safety labaratory, addressed this. It pointed out that work with different types of stone means exposure to different amounts of silica.

Whilst large dust particles can be seen with the naked eye these will usually fall to the floor. Those dust particles less than 100 microns (0.1mm)  – which is relatively large- will get into your mouth and throat and cause irritation.

However, it is those dusts you cannot see that have the potential to cause real harm. Very small dusts of less 5 microns can get deep inside the lung and can lead to serious and potentially fatal diseases.

Silica dust was used in foundries

Silicosis – The Disease

Typically silicosis refers to a spectrum of pulmonary diseases caused by breathing in free crystalline silica

Chronic silicosis may either be simple –  where there are numerous small round opacities – or “progressive massive fibrosis”. This is characterised by nodular lung scarring, 1cm or greater in diameter.

Workers in construction and foundries can have significant exposure to aerolized silica.  Metal castings are made by pouring molten into moulds which contained finely milled quartz sand. Exposure to crystalline silica aerosols occurs both when the mould is knocked off the cast and when the cast is cleaned up and polished.

Progression of the illness

Silica tends to develop slowly. It usually appears 10 – 30 years after first exposure. It is common for it to appear on chest x-rays and scans many years after someone stopped working in a job with exposure.

The joining together of these silicotic nodules leads to replacement of upper lung lobe tissue by the nodules. This causes air trapping and emphysema in the lower lobes due to the damage affecting the lower lobes. This causes your lungs to not work as well.

The symptoms of silicosis typically are chronic airflow instruction and chronic bronchitis.  Chronic cough and breathlessness can often be severe..

The damage to the lung can also cause effusions i.e. buildup of fluid in the pleural area between the lung and rib cage. It can also cause pleural thickening.

Those who smoke (when combined with silica exposure) may make their condition worse.

Very often silicosis is not picked up for many years by G.Ps or other doctors.  It can be detected on lung biopsies and is often picked up at post-mortem examination.

COPD is a recognised complication of both silicosis and smoking. However smoking is thought to be the greater toxic factor.

It is also possible for workers with silicosis to develop pneumothorax or pneumothoraces. This iss an abnormal collection of air or gas in the pleural space which causes an uncoupling of the lung from the chest wall.  In effect the lung punctures like a balloon deflates.

Silicosis can cause a loss of life expectancy.

The Law

The HSE enforces workplace exposure limits to dust which are averaged out over an eight hour day.  Employers are under a duty to both carefully monitor the use of tools which caused dust and to introduce measures to reduce that dust exposure. A link to more information can be found here

In addition suitable masks and protection should always be provided.

Silica Dust Claim – What should I do ?

At Corries we are aware that people not exposed to asbestos or coal can get disease. You should always tell us if you have been exposed to silica dusts.

If you have worked in construction,foundries or other industries where silica or sand dust were used then make sure your doctors are told. Ask them if your x ray or scan might show silicosis. Seek a specialist referral if your health is affected. There is little by way of treatment but the sooner you know the sooner your lawyer can act for you.

And whilst doctors will often ask about smoking, social issues or even asbestos sometimes other dusts get missed. Make sure you explain this to them. Write out your work history and what you remember about silica or other dusts. Hand this to your doctor  and ask them to read it.

If you have have diagnosed with silicosis in the last three years we may be able to help. Please call our specialist industrial claims team for FREE now  on 0800 783 7839.


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