Robert Charlton, proprietor of Northumberland stone company Border Stone Quarries, has been fined Â£6,000 and ordered to pay Â£7,602 costs for exposing masons to high levels of silica dust and for failing to report a case of silicosis.
As we went to press, a second company, Dunhouse Quarries of Darlington, were also about to appear in court for similar offences of exposing employees to levels of dust above the legal limit.
Jane Buxey, director of Stone Federation Great Britain, told NSS: "This case is a stark reminder to companies that it is not acceptable to put employees in danger at work."
Andrea Robbins, the HSE inspector who investigated and prosecuted the case against Border Stone Quarries, told NSS that when the mason who contracted silicosis worked in the masons\' workshop at the firm there had been no dust extraction devices there.
Subsequently, a water wall unit had been installed, but tests carried out by HSE showed the dust level at the work station was still five times higher than the legal limit.
A new exposure limit was introduced in October last year, cutting the legal exposure limit by two-tirds.
Trevor Hay from the Health, Safety, Ethical & Environmental Executive warned Stone Federation members at their annual conference last year that the HSE would be visiting stone companies to monitor dust levels. He said then that dust removal systems and dust masks were not always effective.
Andrea Robbins told NSS that several modifications had been carried out to the water wall work station at Border stone as a result of the HSE enquiry, including more effective enclosure of the work area, increasing the fan speed and repositioning the banker.
Subsequent sampling of the air by the company had showed dust levels had been reduced to fall within the limits.
However, Andrea emphasises that companies whose employees are exposed to silica dust have a legal duty to provide medical screening. Employees should have lung function tests and X-rays to identify disease at an early stage in order to remove the employee from the risk of any further exposure if early signs of disease are discovered.
And she reminds companies they are legally obliged to report occupational ill-health to HSE.
HSE says people exposed to fine dust containing quartz, as nearly all stone dust does to some degree, are at risk of developing silicosis, a chronic (ie incurable) and possibly severely disabling lung disease.
It says there is also now evidence to suggest that exposure to dust containing crystalline silica can lead to an increased risk of lung cancer.
Jane Buxey told NSS: "The effects of work related illness from dust, especially silica, are well known. Companies who have good controls in place, determined by risk assessments that include employee involvement and \'Safe Systems of Work\' should be confident of their measures to reduce exposure.
"Poor systems and controls result in risks developing unchecked that can cause long-term respiratory disease.
"Masons should not be working in dusty atmospheres without adequate controls in place, which must include training, monitoring, maintenance of equipment and health surveillance when needed."