Occupational health: Silicosis

Silicosis is an incurable lung disease caused by inhalation of dust that contains free crystalline silica. Despite all efforts to prevent it, silicosis still afflicts tens of millions of workers in hazardous occupations and kills thousands of people every year, everywhere in the world. With its potential to cause progressive and permanent physical disability, silicosis continues to be one of the most important occupational health illnesses in the world.

The experience of some countries has convincingly demonstrated that it is possible to reduce significantly the incidence of silicosis with well-organized prevention programmes, e.g. in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, United Kingdom and the United States. In the absence of effective specific treatment of silicosis, the only way to protect workers’ health is the control of exposure to silica-containing dusts. The successful prevention of silicosis is clearly the result of a range of preventive measures.

At the national level, laws and regulations, enforcement of occupational exposure limits and technical standards, technical advisory services, an effective system of inspection, a well-organized reporting system, and a national action programme involving governmental agencies, industry and trade unions constitute the necessary elements of a sound infrastructure which is needed to prevent silicosis successfully.

At the enterprise level, application of appropriate technologies to avoid the formation of silica-containing dust, use of engineering methods of dust control, compliance with exposure limits and technical standards, surveillance of the work environment to assess effectiveness of preventive measures, surveillance of workers’ health to detect early stages of silicosis, use of personal protective equipment (as a temporary measure), as well as health education, information and training are imperative for successful prevention.

The ILO/WHO Global Programme for the Elimination of Silicosis (GPES)

In order to address the prevention of silicosis globally, the ILO and WHO have established the ILO/WHO Global Programme for the Elimination of Silicosis (GPES) following the recommendations of the Joint ILO/WHO Committee on Occupational Health, 1995. GPES is an international technical cooperation programme designed to assist countries in their action to prevent silicosis and eliminate it as an occupational health problem worldwide. Through GPES, the ILO and WHO have shaped a policy perspective for a wide international collaboration in this area between developed countries, developing countries and international organizations.

National Programmes for the Elimination of Silicosis (NPES)

Under ILO/WHO GPES, countries are required to set up national programmes for the elimination of silicosis (NPES). The Outline for a National Programme for the Elimination of Silicosis (NPES) provides recommendations for the necessary elements of NPES and national silicosis profile. To date, NPES have been established in Brazil, Chile, China, India, Peru, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam. Many other countries have intensified their preventive efforts and activities.