According to the World Health Organisation, “Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for an estimated 9.6 million deaths in 2018”. And lung cancer accounted for 2.09 million cases. Furthermore, inhaling certain types of dust found in the workplace, over a long period of time, can cause lung cancer. These dusts include, for example, silica dust and wood dust.
Saturday 1st August 2020 is World Lung Cancer Day. For this reason, we are taking a look at this most common type of cancer. In addition, we will examine how workplace control measures can help to prevent it.
Lung Cancer Caused by Silica Dust
Silica is a natural substance found in rocks, clay and sand in varying amounts. Sandstone contains 70 – 90% silica, whereas granite contains about 30%. Many construction materials contain silica. These are, for example, bricks, mortar, concrete and tiles. Cutting, grinding, drilling or polishing these materials creates a fine dust called respirable crystalline silica (RCS). Over time, workers with no protection inhale RCS deep into their lungs.
The human eye cannot see RCS under normal lighting conditions because it is too fine. For construction workers, it is the biggest risk after asbestos. RCS can cause lung cancer and other lung diseases. These diseases include silicosis, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and asthma, following prolonged periods of exposure.
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE),
“Over 500 construction workers are believed to die from exposure to silica dust every year.”
The HSE has produced resources to help you control your workers’ exposure to construction dust. These resources can be found here. HSE’s Control of Exposure to Silica Dust is also a useful publication.
Employers must comply with The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002. This states that for RCS, control measures must keep exposure below the Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL). The WEL for RCS is 0.1 mg/m3 respirable dust, averaged over 8 hours.
Lung Cancer Caused by Wood Dust
Wood dust is a known cause of lung cancer and other cancers, such as nasal cancer. It can also cause other diseases, such as asthma.
According to lung cancer physician, Lynne Eldridge, MD,
“While wood dust is more strongly associated with nasopharyngeal carcinoma, both people who are exposed to on-the-job wood dust, as well as those who work in occupations associated with the dust, have elevated rates of lung cancer.”
Read more from Lynne Eldridge, MD about wood dust exposure and lung cancer risk here.
As with RCS, COSHH regulations require that you protect workers from the hazards of wood dust. There are different WELs for hardwood and softwood dust. The WEL for hardwood is 3mg/m3 based on an 8-hour time-weighted average. This WEL also applies for mixtures of hardwood and softwood dusts). Finally, the WEL for softwood dust is 5mg/m3 based on an 8-hour time-weighted average.
The HSE recommends ways you can limit your workers’ exposure to wood dust here.
To summarise, you need to put in place controls to help protect your workers against lung cancer and other diseases caused by inhaling dust. These include providing them with the right respiratory protective equipment and putting in place effective dust extraction and local exhaust ventilation (LEV) systems, such as dust extraction benches and hoods and other dust extraction systems.