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Engineered Stone and Silicosis

Volume 835: debated on Monday 15 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to restricting the use of engineered stone, following the decision by Australia to ban it; and whether they plan to make silicosis a notifiable disease.

My Lords, the Health and Safety Executive, HSE, is not currently considering restricting the use of engineered stone. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health 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.

I thank the Minister for his Answer, but Australia acted after it found that one in four stonemasons had incurable, debilitating and sometimes fatal silicosis. Estimates suggest that, in the UK, 1,000 people a year die from silicosis as a workplace disease and many more suffer from debilitating conditions—not just stonemasons but construction workers, engineers and agricultural workers. Surely the Government should at least look into this further and get more data on a problem on which Australia, which is broadly comparable to us, has found it crucial and essential to act.

I am pleased that the noble Baroness has raised this point. She will know that the HSE is different from Safe Work Australia because the latter does not work as a national workplace regulator and instead sets policy. According to our figures, Australia has reported 260 cases of silicosis. However, a significant number of workers using engineered stone in Australia are known to be SMEs or sole traders, who remain hard to reach. To answer the question of the noble Baroness, we are very much in touch with Australia on this important matter.

My Lords, as someone with former downstream involvement in the industry, I welcome this important Question. I suggest that we confine any debate on further restriction to the dry cut of granite, cement and quartz and not to other products. Engineered stone is primarily quartz; if cut wet, there is little problem but, if cut dry, it can lead to dust and lung problems and may well require further regulation. This is a problem primarily in Europe, as there is now very little dry-cut activity in the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord makes some very helpful comments. He is right that individuals are most at risk when dry cutting and polishing are being performed. In Great Britain, as I think he alluded to, engineered stone is mostly imported. He makes an interesting point about the amount of silica content found in engineered stone: yes, it is high, but sandstone also contains 70% to 90% and granite 25% to 60%. The Health and Safety Executive and COSHH have taken good measures on that over many years.

My Lords, I am not very reassured by the Minister’s comments on British health and safety precautions and enforcement. Can he explain in greater detail what we are doing, rather than just hoping that this will go away? Are cases increasing, and are there numbers for illness in the UK, not Australia, from these causes?

In contradiction to what the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said, our information is that nobody has suffered any long-term exposure to silicosis. There are instances of non-compliance, which have reduced from 19% to 11%, but the HSE has been tackling exposure to RCS for many years through a mature regulatory model that combines targeted inspection activity on high-risk activity, communications activity and working with stakeholders.

My Lords, the issue of silicosis from stone grinding has been known since the 1940s, when it was first described by the late Dr Donald Hunter, an expert on industrial disease. He recommended a number of precautions. Are the available precautions, which should be enforced, now clear and do the Government understand them? Are they similar to those introduced in Australia?

I can reassure the House that, as mentioned before, most engineered stone in the UK is imported. There could be an issue where engineered stone is used for fitting kitchen worktops, where the importance of PPE and masks is understandably difficult to monitor. However, the HSE and COSHH have been looking at this over many years.

My Lords, can the Minister explain what is behind the reluctance to make silicosis a recordable disease? If we did so, we would be able to monitor the size of the problem and put in place further preventative interventions and thus, in the long term, save the public purse in both the NHS and the benefits system.

The Health and Safety Executive recently carried out a post-implementation review, or PIR, of RIDDOR, which, as the noble Baroness will know, deal with the reporting of injuries, diseases and dangerous occurrences, with a view to expanding that to include areas where HSE regulatory intervention can add value. HSE will start the process of reviewing the remaining recommendations—including the inclusion of pneumoconiosis, which is, in effect, silicosis—within the next business year.

My Lords, the HSE’s own website says:

“Silica is the biggest risk to construction workers after asbestos”.

As the Minister said, it is found in engineered stone which is used extensively in kitchens and bathrooms for counter-tops. The UK has a silica exposure limit of 0.1 milligrams per cubic metre. As I understand it, that is twice the legal limit in the United States and Germany, and four times that in Portugal. I ask the Minister: has this has been looked at recently? Is he aware that the first case of someone getting silicosis was in Australia in only 2015? Since then, hundreds more cases have come online. In Australia, this is being talked about as the asbestos of the 2020s. I urge the Government not to be complacent about it.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. I reassure the House that Great Britain has a very good record in this area and the European Union reflects our approach. For example, the silica limit in Great Britain—as the noble Baroness has pointed out—is 0.1 milligrams per metre cubed, which was set in 2006 and is now comparative across the world. The EU considered a lower limit, but it was not adopted due to uncertainties about the reliability of measuring techniques below the limit we are at.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the reports in the Scottish media that part of the Stone of Destiny has been taken into private ownership by a member of the Scottish National Party? Which department is responsible for recovering it, and what are they doing about it?

My Lords, one of the problems with silicosis is that it is not necessarily diagnosed by doctors and recorded on death certificates. That is because it is not a well-recognised condition apart from among experts. This means that deaths as a consequence of chronic obstructive pul—

Noble Lords know what word I mean: COPD. Deaths that are consequent on COPD do not necessarily record silicosis. Do His Majesty’s Government support the recommendations of the APPG on respiratory diseases, particularly the need for an industry awareness campaign on silicosis?

Yes, the noble Lord makes some very good points. I reassure him that the current HSE silica intervention continues to raise awareness of the requirement to adequately control exposure to RCS, for those in the construction sector and those providing materials for construction, such as brick manufacturers and stone fabricators. These campaigns will continue through 2024.

My Lords, the sense of complacency has been very strong. I draw noble Lords’ attention to the fact that, in many cases, exposure to silica is producing diseases in young people aged 19 to 26 in Australia. Given the concern about the health and well-being of our workforce, are the Government considering that this and other issues in workplace safety are a significant contributor to our problem of so many people of working age being unable to work because of health?

It is easy for the noble Baroness to say that we are complacent, but we are not. I have laid out a number of actions that we are taking. The HSE has continued to deliver inspection campaigns in industries associated with RCS exposure. The HSE also investigates concerns about inadequate risk management, which has been going on for many years. I mentioned the post-implementation review, and HSE will start the process of reviewing the remaining recommendations—including the inclusion of pneumoconiosis—within the next business year, as I said earlier.