Silicosis is a long-term lung disease caused by inhaling large amounts of crystalline silica dust, usually over many years.
Silica is a substance naturally found in certain types of stone, rock, sand and clay. Working with these materials can create a very fine dust that can be easily inhaled.
Once inside the lungs, the dust particles are attacked by the immune system.
This causes swelling (inflammation) and gradually leads to areas of hardened and scarred lung tissue (fibrosis). Lung tissue that's scarred in this way doesn't function properly.
People who work in the following industries are particularly at risk:
The symptoms of silicosis usually take many years to develop, and you may not notice any problems until after you've stopped working with silica dust.
The symptoms can also continue to get worse, even if you're no longer exposed.
Silicosis usually develops after being exposed to silica for 10-20 years, although it can sometimes develop after 5-10 years of exposure. Occasionally, it can occur after only a few months of very heavy exposure.
The main symptoms of silicosis are:
If the condition continues to get worse, these symptoms may become more severe.
Some people may eventually find simple activities such as walking or climbing stairs very difficult and may be largely confined to their house or bed.
The condition can ultimately be fatal if the lungs stop working properly (respiratory failure) or serious complications develop, but this is rare in the UK.
Silicosis can also increase your risk of getting other serious and potentially life-threatening conditions, including:
See your GP if you think there's a possibility you could have silicosis.
They'll ask you about your symptoms and work history, and listen to your lungs with a stethoscope.
They'll want to know about any periods when you may have been exposed to silica and whether you were issued with any safety equipment, such as a face mask, when you were working.
If silicosis is suspected, you may be referred to a specialist for further tests to confirm the diagnosis.
Tests you may have include:
A test for TB may also be recommended because you're more likely to get TB if you have silicosis.
There's no cure for silicosis because the lung damage can't be reversed. Treatment aims to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
The condition may continue to get worse, leading to further lung damage and serious disability, although this may happen very slowly over many years.
The risk of complications may be reduced if you:
You may be offered long-term oxygen therapy if you're having difficulty breathing and have low levels of oxygen in your blood.
Bronchodilator medicines may also be prescribed to widen your airways and make breathing easier.
You'll be given a course of antibiotics if you develop a bacterial chest infection.
In very severe cases, a lung transplant may be an option, although there are strict health requirements to meet before this will be considered.
Silicosis can be prevented by avoiding prolonged exposure to silica dust.
In the UK, all workplaces must comply with The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002, which sets a workplace exposure limit for silica.
Your employer should:
You can read more detailed information about the control of exposure to silica dust (PDF, 99.5kb) on the Health and Safety Executive website.
If you've been diagnosed with silicosis, you may be able to claim compensation in one of the following ways:
You can read more about Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit on the GOV.UK website.