Silicosis and Edinburgh's Construction Industry - A History of Risk

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Respirable crystalline silica (RCS) is found in any substance containing stone, rocks, sands and clays, including bricks and concrete.

Long-term exposure to RCS in the workplace can result in hardening and scarring of lung tissue, leading to fibrosis and reduction in respiratory function.

Just as with asbestos-related diseases, RCS has a long latency period so in many cases the disease may only become apparent decades after exposure. Initial symptoms of silicosis include shortness of breath and a cough. They can quickly develop; leading to disability, organ failure and death. In a minority of cases acute silicosis may develop as a result of high levels of short-term exposure.

Furthermore, workers with silicosis are at a heightened risk of all of the following conditions:

  • Lung cancer
  • Kidney disease
  • Tuberculosis
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Arthritis

Inseparable from Scotland's History

Silica is an integral part of Scotland's history, particularly in Edinburgh, where it is literally built into the city's history.

However, for workers in the stonemasonry and construction sectors, who have frequently worked in unventilated areas rife with silica dust, the widespread use of stone in Edinburgh and across Scotland has resulted in an underreported "epidemic" of silicosis.

In 2019, Edinburgh's Surgeons' Hall Museum published a paper, ‘Edinburgh's hidden story of stonemasons' silicosis', which detailed the use of silica in the city as well as its tragic impact.

"There is a weight of evidence from contemporary sources which makes a persuasive case that this is a forgotten occupational health disaster," commented, Professor Ken Donaldson one of the report's authors who spoke to the BBC about the findings.

Professor Donaldson told of his shock at learning that the Scott Monument, which required huge of blocks of sandstone for its construction, was shaped predominantly in sheds to keep out the wind and rain.

He added that "people just don't know about the unintended consequences of building this beautiful city".

The report details how between 1872 and 1911, 46.1% of Edinburgh's stonemasons died as a result of silica-tuberculosis. However, because there was no path to reporting the illness – even today it is not a statutory reportable disease – its true impact remains unknown.

Professor Donaldson said that he felt the figures are likely to be only a tiny fraction of the full toll. "I think hundreds of stonemasons will have died from silicosis while building the New Town."

The high quartz sandstone used for building Edinburgh's New Town was transported from a Craigleith quarry, less than two miles from Scotland's capital. This was then used to construct many of the landmark buildings, including the following:

  • The Scott Monument
  • The Edinburgh and Glasgow Bank
  • The Old Royal High School on Calton Hill

A Contemporary Risk

Even today, silica remains a threat to those employed in stonemasonry. For example, one study found that between 2007 and 2013, six stonemasons between aged 24 to 39 were were diagnosed with silicosis while working in Edinburgh.

Furthermore, there is a silica dust risk that is much closer to all of us than we might imagine. Many engineered stone kitchen worktops in Scotland contain silica and are likely to be hazardous to the workers who manufacture and install them.

Around half of all lung transplants in Israel are thought to be the result of damage caused by silica dust from engineered stone of the kind used in up to half the new kitchens in the UK.

There is a real and urgent need to improve the safety of those who use this material – otherwise we may well see a ticking time-bomb of occupational illness similar to the tragedy we have already experienced with asbestos.

An Occupational Hazard

Any worker in Scotland who is engaged in quarrying, mining, sandblasting, brick cutting, rock drilling, glass manufacturing, tunnelling, foundry work, stone working, ceramics manufacture or construction may be at risk of being exposed to silica dust.

Furthermore, it is not only quartz sandstone that contains silica. Other types of material that contain silica, and are therefore potentially hazardous to work with, include the following:

  • Gritstone
  • Quartzite
  • Concrete
  • Mortar
  • Shale
  • Slate
  • Granite
  • Brick

Employer Obligations

According to the Health and Safety Executive, there is a workplace exposure limit for respirable crystalline silica of 0.1 mg/m3 expressed as an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA).

Furthermore, exposure to RCS is subject to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH). Any failure to abide by these limits may result in the contraction of silicosis and possible employer liability for a silicosis compensation claim.

Thompsons Lung Disease Solicitors

If you believe that you may have been exposed to silica dust and have symptoms which resemble those listed above, our advice is, firstly, see a doctor to receive a diagnosis and treatment for your condition.

If you are suffering from silicosis as a result of exposure in the workplace you may be entitled to make a personal injury compensation claim. Contact Thompsons' specialist lung disease lawyers today by calling 0800 0891 331 and we will talk you through the process of making an industrial disease claim.

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