Long term silica dust exposure harms stonemason


As we have reported, the HSE has begun a drive to publicise the dangers of dust exposure in the workplace, and the construction sector is high on their target list in this respect. Whereas their work often focuses on one-off breaches of building health & safety, this is an example of a long-running, creeping disability brought on by regular exposure to a dust hazard – silica dust.

Stonemasons spend their working lives creating dust. In this case they were working with sandstone, which has 70% to 90% crystalline silica content. The work was the repair, restoration and extension of the early 19th century buildings of Stonyhurst College, Clitheroe. The scale of the works was such that the college actually employed stonemasons directly.

The member of staff in question (aged 55) was the first to be taken on June 1999 (two others were hired in 2005 and 2009) and he worked there for 12 years before in July 2011 his doctor diagnosed silicosis. He was due to leave four months later, having been made redundant by the college.

At first he worked on the wind and weather protection of the existing fabric. The others were brought in to help him with the construction of the new 4-storey building for the 6th Form. This was to be a 21-month-long project, using over 400 tonnes of sandstone, and the three stonemasons used electric hand tools for the cutting, shaping, chiselling and finishing of the stone.

Health & Safety Consultants ignored

The failings on behalf of the college management were that although their own health and safety consultants alerted them to the risks of this work in 2008, they did not act and carry out their obligations in terms of the exposure of their workforce to silica dust. Specifically, no equipment was put in place for the purposes of -

  • Monitoring of dust levels
  • Removal of dust from the workplace
  • Capture of dust being generated
  • Suppression of the dust being created by the tools

The original repair work involved two masons operating in the windowless college workshop, with (amazingly) no dust extraction at all: even though in 2004 an extraction system was installed in the adjacent joinery workshop.

Matters then became worse – the comment of the investigating HSE Inspector Mike Mullen was:

During the construction of the sixth-form building, the work of the stonemasons intensified. We estimate that they were regularly exposed to silica dust at a level which was in excess of 80 times greater than the workplace exposure limit.

And later, although it emerged in July 2011 that this stonemason was suffering from silicosis, still the college did not monitor the other two men’s exposure levels until they were made redundant in November of that year.

The unnamed stonemason who has contracted silicosis now has very severe and untreatable symptoms, most notably breathing problems from his reduced lung function. He suffers from breathlessness, cannot play with his grandchildren and is no longer able to work as a stonemason.

The disease brings with it an increased risk of arthritis, lung cancer, kidney disease and tuberculosis. It cannot be reversed, once contracted.

At Preston Crown Court, Stonyhurst College received a severe fine plus costs, totalling £131,547.78. Had it listened to its safety consultants, the problems could have been averted, a man’s life (maybe three men’s lives) could have been saved from severe disability, and an expensive case involving adverse publicity would have not resulted. It is unusual to find a client employing specialist contractors directly – this case suggests that it is more appropriate for them to appoint specialist firms that have health and safety systems in place and who understand the risks.