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Reducing the risk of silicosis from artificial stone

Wind tunnel at SRCStone worktop

The Challenge

Silicosis is an irreversible, disabling lung disease caused by inhalation of dust containing respirable crystalline silica. Artificial (sintered) stone is an increasingly popular material and usually contains very high levels of crystalline silica. It is commonly used to fabricate kitchen and bathroom worktops, involving cutting and polishing of the material in situ.

Processing the stone can create high concentrations of airborne respirable crystalline silica to which workers could be exposed. Globally, cases of accelerated silicosis in younger workers due to this exposure are increasing rapidly, with outbreaks reported from Israel, Australia, Italy, Spain and the USA.

There remains a concern that the use of artificial stone in the UK is very likely to present a potential risk to the health of exposed workers here as well. Research is needed internationally to better understand the toxicity of the dust generated by different types of artificial stone, and also whether there are significant differences between the risks posed by artificial and natural stone products.

The Solution

A range of different materials, including resin, sintered and natural stone products, were cut and polished inside HSE's large dust tunnel facility. A multidisciplinary HSE team worked on the project, including measurement and control scientists, analytical chemists, fibres and minerals experts and medical scientists from the Centre for Workplace Health. They used a wide range of techniques to characterise the dust and fume emitted, analysing by silica content, chemical composition, particle size, particle mass and shape.

The Outcome

Our research is helping us understand the properties of the dust and any organic material released when processing artificial stone. It will better inform HSE and industry when assessing risk, determining the choice of appropriate exposure control measures, such as on-tool exhaust ventilation and respiratory protective equipment, and deciding on appropriate training and information for employers and workers.

For more information see our Complete Worker Health pages.

This case study was featured on page 27 of the HSE Annual Science Review 2020.

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