Silicosis: why action by employers to protect workers is imperative

Oliver Collett explains how three stonemasons brought a successful claim against their former employer for negligent exposure to silica dust.

Legal claims involving occupational exposure to silica dust and the resultant development of silicosis and other lung diseases are sadly becoming far more commonplace.

Notwithstanding the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) provision of detailed guidance on the control of exposure to silica dust in the workplace, there are many individuals who have not been, and are not being, adequately protected by their employer.

In early 2020, our Newcastle team were contacted by three Stonemasons, all of whom were employed by a large engineering and construction company in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

During the course of their employment, all three claimants were negligently exposed to silica dust when using grinders, pneumatic breakers, and other hand tools to work on stone materials.

Their employer did not implement measures to remove or reduce the dust levels produced and, in particular, did not provide any adequate respiratory protection.

Silicosis is only one form of lung condition that can be caused by silica dust exposure. Silica can also cause lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, tuberculosis and rheumatological disease. The most common type of disease, however, is silicosis, a form of pulmonary fibrosis.

A disease impacting work and life

All three claimants developed respiratory symptoms many years after working for the company. They had also experienced a significant decline in their overall levels of fitness as a result of the disease, which had significantly impacted upon their work and capacity to earn, as well as their social and family life.

In addition to these challenges, the claimants were also now required to come to terms with the increased risk of suffering potentially life-threatening conditions, such as tuberculosis and lung cancer.

Given their similarities, all three cases were managed together through the court proceedings process. Medical and engineering experts were instructed and all three claims were fully quantified. The claimants’ former employer initially denied liability and sought to contest the cases on medical causation grounds, as well as arguing that the claims were out of time.

It is quite common for people to receive a late diagnosis of silicosis, as initial medical investigations can often conclude that the fibrotic disease is naturally occurring. As a consequence, some claimants can find themselves facing arguments that they have not brought their claims to court within the required three-year time limit. This was the case in two of the three claims in this instance, as early diagnoses of sarcoidosis (a naturally occurring but very similar condition to silicosis) were made.

Last-minute settlement

The three claims were listed to be heard together in the High Court in London, but shortly before the trial was due to start, the defendant settled all three. Significant settlement sums were recovered commensurate with the level of respiratory disability that each claimant was suffering.

All three claimants were able to settle their cases on a provisional basis, meaning that they are free to return to court for additional compensation if their condition worsened, or if they developed any of the other conditions they were at risk of developing as a consequence of their silica exposure.

Whilst this settlement constituted crucial recognition of an employer’s negligence in exposing three stonemasons to dangerous levels of silica dust without adequate respiratory protection, these cases highlight just how important initiatives such as the HSE’s Dust Kills campaign are.

The consequences of negligent exposure are life-long, devastating and potentially deadly for the individuals involved. When these consequences are entirely preventable, action by employers to protect their employees is imperative.

Oliver Collett is a partner and leads the Workplace Illness team at Irwin Mitchell.

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