How real-time data could be the beginning of the end for occupational silicosis
16 May 2023
Silicosis is now the most common occupational lung disease in the world, and silica dust has been described as ‘the new asbestos’ due to the extreme threat it poses to human health.
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In fact, the potential for harm is worse than the threat of asbestos when you consider that asbestos is just one of many different silica compounds and that silica is the most proliferate mineral on earth – present in bricks, sand, stone, concrete, glass, cement and many other construction and building materials.
Silicosis has been the subject of two separate parliamentary reports from the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Respiratory Health in 2020 and 2023 highlighting the growing awareness - and the growing unease - around this subject, and the need for radical action to prevent an on-going and developing crisis.
How big is the problem?
The 2023 APPG report ‘Improving Silicosis Outcomes in the UK’ acknowledges that we don’t really know the answer to this question. One of its first recommendations in the report is that Silicosis is ‘included as a notifiable disease’ and that improvements should be made to way respirable crystalline silica (RCS) exposure is monitored, tracked, assessed and responded to in individuals in the workplace.
Here's what we do know:
1. There are around 12,000 deaths pa caused by the inhalation of dangerous particulates in the workplace in the UK alone, and many tens of thousands more cases of serious harm. That’s 99% of all occupational deaths. The global figure for deaths is over 500,000.
Figure 1 – Source: NSW Dust Disease Register Annual Report 2020-21
2. Silicosis may be the cause or a comorbidity in many of these cases – we simply don’t know as it’s not a notifiable disease.
3. Silicosis shares many of the same characteristics as asbestosis – both affect the lungs, both continue to develop even after exposure has ceased, both are irreversible, and often, both are fatal.
4. Like asbestosis, silicosis is increasingly impacting younger workers as increased mechanisation and other factors impact. It is no longer an ‘old man’s disease’, as data from NSW Australia shows (Figure 1), workers in their 30s represent a large share of those affected.
It’s estimated that around 600,000 workers in the UK are regularly exposed to RCS in the workplace. That’s a very scary figure when you consider that tiny amounts of this substance can lead not only to silicosis but to a wide range of other diseases and illnesses including kidney disease, skin cancer, lung cancer, diabetes and auto-immune diseases.
In response to this, legislative exposure limits around the world have been tightening up – led by the likes of Australia and Canada – but this has led to a further debate with many in the industries where RCS is a major problem pointing out that it has not been possible to reliably and accurately monitor for real-time RCS levels in real-world situations. How can businesses be expected to control RCS to legislated limits and report on that if the technology doesn’t exist to achieve this?
The second major recommendation of the 2023 APPG report on silicosis outcomes is that the Health and Safety Executive should “look into real time monitoring systems as a matter of some urgency… to speed the process and introduction of real time monitoring systems.”
Optical Refraction Technology – Image: Trolex
This recommendation was prompted directly by the development of Optical Refraction Technology (ORT) which promises for the first time in history to allow users to reliably detect and distinguish RCS in real time in real world settings – and as a result has the potential to be the beginning of the end for silicosis in the workplace.
Why will ORT make such a big difference?
Current dust monitoring methodologies which can be broadly categorised as Gravimetric Sampling or Light-based technologies are not capable of delivering real time silica monitoring.
There is no other potentially fatal commonly-occurring substance or parameter where we would find this acceptable – think fire, gas or even speed. As humans we demand to know immediately, and with a high degree of reliability, if these parameters become threatening to our health or safety, and rightly so. But not with silica.
Gravimetric sampling has a very wide range of negative usage factors (complicated, time-consuming, fiddly, fragile) and is highly inaccurate, but its fundamental weakness is in delivering results after laboratory analysis which can take days or even weeks. Would you want a fire alarm that went off a week after your house burned down?
Light-based technologies are often unreliable in real-world settings, have difficulty capturing information from crystalline structures such as silica, and are incapable of reliably distinguishing silica dust from other particulates. At best they can supply indicative real-time information but at worst they are dangerously inaccurate and unreliable.
Glyn Pierce-Jones, Trolex Ltd.
ORT on the other hand can distinguish silica particulates from other non-crystalline particulates, is able to accurately and reliably report on silica levels, has none of the negative usage-factors associated with Gravimetric Sampling, and does all of this in real time.
A deeper dive into ORT
Optical Refraction Technology is an entirely new development in the particulates field and has already led to the creation of field-ready products that can reliably detect and report on RCS exposure in real-time in the real-world settings in which it is needed – construction sites, materials production sites, mines, tunnels, quarries and process industries.
It works by analysing the size, shape and refractive qualities of particulates and is capable of distinguishing silica particles of all types from less harmful dusts, and tracking changing levels of these particulates over time. Every particle passing through the ORT chamber is monitored in this way and gathered data is analysed in real-time. A triple-voting software mechanism (i.e. is it the right size, shape and does it have the right refractive qualities) identifies silica particulates and reports them as a particle count per litre, which can then be converted into mg/m3 which is currently the standard reporting metric.
It is deployed in open-path sensing hardware that allows it to be used by workers with no specialist knowledge, to be maintained quickly and easily in around 2 minutes a month, and which requires no specialist skills to set up or to access the required data.
About the author:
Glyn Pierce-Jones, CEO of Trolex Ltd., is a successful media and technology professional who took over his family’s business in 2010 and has since transformed the company culturally and strategically. Early on in his tenure he began work on solutions to the ‘particulates problem’ deploying the R&D skills and experience of the team at Trolex to develop a range of products.
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