UK: Silicosis - On The Rise?

Last Updated: 15 January 2016
Article by Jason Bleasdale

Most Read Contributor in UK, February 2019

Whilst silica is a naturally occurring substance found in most rocks, clay and sand, when it is processed in any way whether through mining, cutting, crushing or grinding, silica dust is generated which if inhaled can cause significant chest conditions including lung cancer, silicosis, COPD (including bronchitis and emphysema) and chest infections of varying severity.

Whilst silica is a naturally occurring substance found in most rocks, clay and sand, when it is processed in any way whether through mining, cutting, crushing or grinding, silica dust is generated.  If inhaled, it can cause significant chest conditions including lung cancer, silicosis, COPD (including bronchitis and emphysema) and chest infections of varying severity.  Indeed, the NHS describes silicosis as, 'a long term incurable lung disease caused by inhaling large amounts of silica dust' and notes that silicosis in itself can cause heart failure, arthritis, kidney disease and TB.

The dangers of exposure to respirable crystalline silica and the attributable injuries are well known.  Silicosis is a Prescribed Disease (D1), the COSHH Regulations specify a limit for daily exposure and there are recognised latency periods depending upon the nature and extent of the exposure. Whilst the latency period for  chronic silicosis can be 10 -20 years, very heavy exposure could result in acute silicosis, significantly reducing the latency period, causing a much earlier onset of symptoms (possibly within a few months) and a more serious condition. The World Health Organisation recommends lifelong surveillance for workers exposed to crystalline silica.

For masons and polishers, wet working has for the most part protected against the risk of working granite and other quartz containing rock. Within the mining industry alternative solutions were needed. Positive ventilation and pausing for clearance of the air after shot firing (to allow dust and fume to be removed) provide a workable solution. Dust suppression within  pottery and refractory making was more difficult to achieve so better solutions were provided by automation of process and/or by altering ingredients to the process to those which are not fibrogenic. For moulders and fettlers , even the replacement of silica sand as a main casting medium by less fibrogenic material such as 'green sand' did not completely solve the problems. This therefore led to the work being completely enclosed within a specially ventilated cabinet. In addition, high precision casting for motor industry components use binders within the moulding medium together with separating agents to remove dust.

The distinction between acute and chronic disease is a matter of the level and duration of exposure. The presence of other dusts, cigarette smoking and environmental pollution outside the workplace can also modify the effect of quartz.

Each area of work and process demands subtly altered solutions and then monitoring and review to ensure that the problem is removed but without introducing other risks. As a result, silicosis is often seen as an historic problem in the UK, referred to as 'potter's rot' or 'miner's lung.' It is commonly believed that the number of silicosis cases in the UK is rare. Indeed, an HSE prosecution in 2014 made the news when Stonyhurst College was fined £100,000 for exposing a stonemason undertaking refurbishment works to silica dust whilst working with power tools on sandstone, which resulted in him  sustaining injury.  Moreover, the HSE identified 11 silicosis deaths in 2012 and only 45 new cases of silicosis were assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit in 2013.

Having said this, the HSE itself believes that these figures are underestimated particularly when one considers the other diseases arising from exposure to silica dust, estimating that the number of lung cancer deaths attributable to exposure to silica dust is in the region of 800 per annum. The recent HSE report entitled "Health and Safety Statistics 2014/15" found that there are 13,000 yearly deaths from work-related lung disease and cancer estimated to be attributed to past exposure, primarily from chemicals and dust at work.

Within this global figure, current estimates suggest that there are at least 8,000 work-related cancer deaths each year in the UK. Aside from a major asbestos connection, one of the next 4 largest categories of cause is silica (with diesel engine exhaust, mineral oils and breast cancer due to shift work the other causes within that group). The report also predicts that claims volumes for work related lung disease and cancer will continue at their present rate for the next decade before starting to reduce.

Currently, exposure to silica and the resultant issues are nowhere more prevalent than in South Africa where thousands of gold miners have presented allegations that exposure to silica during the course of their employment has resulted in them developing silicosis and other related conditions.  Presently, the lawsuit involving approximately 27,000 gold miners, ex-miners and their families is coming to a head. The outcome of the Certification hearing which took place in October 2015 to determine whether the case can proceed by way of a certified class action is anticipated in the Spring of this year.

The judgment could open the floodgates in circumstances where the number of silicosis sufferers in South Africa is estimated to exceed the current numbers of claimants by hundreds of thousands.

Similarly, over recent years the USA has seen an increase in silicosis claims. The question to be asked is whether this increase results from the prevalence of hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking?   In addition to the breaking of the ground to establish the well, silica sand is often a proppant in the fracking process, used in significant quantities to hold open the fractures to allow the gas/oil to be released.   According to Forbes, ninety five billion pounds of sand was used in fracking operations in the USA in 2014.

The delivery, movement, transportation and use of the sand can, of course, generate dust which can be respirable.  Indeed, the American National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has expressed concerns with regard to the levels of respirable crystalline silica to which workers involved in fracking operations are exposed.  NIOSH collected 116 samples from fracking sites with 79% of the samples showing silica exposures greater than the NIOSH recommended exposure level and 31% of all samples showing exposure ten times greater than the NIOSH REL.

Fracking is big business in the USA and the alleged associated risks of silica exposure appear well advertised with US law firms seeking silica dust exposure claims not only from workers involved in fracking activities but also from individuals living in the vicinity of fracking sites.

With fracking raising its profile in the UK, and the Institute of Directors "backing plans to fast track fracking applications"   is this claims trend likely to transfer across the Atlantic?

Not according to the Government which refers to the 2012 review of the Royal Academy of Engineering and Royal Society, who concluded that "the health, safety and environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing (often termed 'fracking') as a means to extract shale gas can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation." Previous trends within industry indicate that whilst it is now uncommon to find chronic (active) silicosis in developed countries mainly due to safer alternative materials and/or modern methods of dust control and the enforcement of international standards, this tends to minimise risk rather than remove the spectre of it. As with all risks in all industries and processes failure to take precautions leads to accelerated levels of disease. Focus upon such issues will therefore need to remain unremitting.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Sign Up
Gain free access to lawyers expertise from more than 250 countries.
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Newsalert
Select Topics
Select Regions
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions