A significant proportion of work related ill health is caused by occupational lung disorders. According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), they are responsible for up to 12,000 deaths each year. In addition, around 14,000 new cases are diagnosed annually, resulting in an estimated 568,000 working days lost each year.
By Simon Jukes, Deputy Chief Occupational Health Advisor, MOHS Workplace Health
A significant proportion of work related ill health is caused by occupational lung disorders.
According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), they are responsible for up to 12,000 deaths each year. In addition, around 14,000 new cases are diagnosed annually, resulting in an estimated 568,000 working days lost each year.
Exposure to some vapours, particles or gases at work may make existing breathing disorders worse or contribute to the development of new problems. Well known workplace substances that are known to contribute to breathing problems include:
- fine respirable silica dust
- solder fume
- some types of welding fume
- some types of 2 part paint and foams
- dust or fume containing chromium, nickel or cadmium
When considering these types of airborne hazards, employers should follow guidance and industry best practice to control the risks that exposure may bring.
Reference should be made to the hierarchy of controls, remembering that provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) should be considered a control of last resort, to be used only when all other options have been considered.
Ways of preventing or avoiding exposure to hazardous substances may include:
- removing toxic materials (or substituting less toxic ones, if possible)
- eliminating processes which might cause exposure; or enclosing these processes, providing proper filtration and extraction as required
- isolating harmful processes, limiting the number of employees that may be exposed
- automating harmful processes, if possible. If not, limiting exposure hours by introducing shorter working periods or rotating jobs.
- maintenance management to ensure machinery and dust control systems are working appropriately and to manufacturers’ specifications.
- appropriate training and management oversight to ensure that employees understand how to use equipment and controls and to ensure that once trained, they adhere to company policy and instruction.
- provision of appropriate Respiratory Protective equipment (RPE) where the above controls cannot be implemented fully or effectively.
Assessing the risk
Control measures should be formulated as part of an overall, robust risk assessment strategy. The assessment process should:
- identify the potential hazard
- determine who may be harmed
- quantify the risk and identify ways to minimise it
- provide a record of the findings
- implement a suitable review period to ensure controls are effective
As part of the process, employers may decide to employ an occupational hygienist to take environmental samples such as air or noise monitoring. This will help then to identify and quantify which potential hazards put their employees at risk.
Employers may also appoint an occupational health provider where there is a high risk of harm, or following advice from a third party. Occupational health provides many services but in this instance, the two most appropriate ones would be:
i) health surveillance to aid in the early identification of work related illness, allowing prompt intervention to minimise the likelihood of further harm.
ii) measurement of the effectiveness of control measures by feeding back the outcomes of specific (in this case respiratory) surveillance, in relation to employee demographics, to identify groups or ‘poor’ results which may indicate a control failure.