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 inflammation (swelling) and gradually leads to areas of hardened and scarred lung tissue (fibrosis). Lung tissue that’s scarred in this way does not function properly.

People who work in the following industries are particularly at risk:

  • stone masonry and stone cutting – especially with sandstone
  • construction and demolition – because of exposure to concrete and
  • paving materials
  • pottery, ceramics and glass manufacturing
  • mining and quarrying
  • sand blasting

Signs and symptoms

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.

In most cases, exposure for at least 10-20 years is required to cause the condition, although in a few cases it can develop after 5-10 years of exposure or, in rare cases, after only a few months of very heavy exposure.

Main symptoms

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 (see below), but this is rare in the UK.

Further problems

Silicosis can also increase your risk of other serious and potentially life-threatening conditions, including:

The links above will take you to more information on these conditions, including their treatment.

How can my GP help?

See your GP if you think there's a possibility you could have silicosis.

Your GP may suspect the condition after asking about your symptoms and work history, and listening 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. These tests can include:

  • a chest X-ray to detect abnormalities in the structure of your lungs
  • computerised tomography (CT) scan of your chest, to produce more detailed images of your lungs 
  • lung function testing (spirometry), which involves breathing into a machine called a spirometer to assess how well your lungs are working

You may also be asked to have a test for TB, as you're more likely to get TB if you have silicosis.

Treating silicosis

There's no cure for silicosis, as the lung damage cannot 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 following steps may limit the risk of complications:

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.

Preventing silicosis

Silicosis can be prevented by avoiding prolonged exposure to silica dust.

In the UK, all workplaces must now comply with The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002, which sets a workplace exposure limit for silica.

Your employer should warn you about any risks to your health, make sure you're aware of the correct procedures to reduce your risk of exposure to silica dust, and supply you with the necessary equipment to protect you.

You can read more detailed information about the control of exposure to silica dust (PDF, 99.5kb) on the Health and Safety Executive website.

Claiming compensation

If you've been diagnosed with silicosis, you may be able to claim compensation in one of the following ways:

  • Industrial injuries disablement benefit – a sum of money paid weekly to people with silicosis who were exposed to silica while in employment (but not self-employment) and to people who have silicosis and lung cancer.
  • Launch a civil claim for compensation through the courts (you'll need to get legal advice about how to do this).
  • Claim a lump sum in compensation under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979 if you have silicosis, or you are the dependant of someone who has died from the condition and you haven't been able to get compensation through the courts because the employer who exposed you has stopped trading.

You can read more detailed information about Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit on the GOV.UK website.

Page last reviewed: 18/05/2015

Next review due: 18/05/2017