A significant proportion of work-related ill health is caused by occupational lung disorders.
Over the last three years, there have been an estimated 17,000 new cases of breathing or lung problems caused or made worse by work each year. Work-related lung problems result in over 500,000 working days lost and account for over 13,000 deaths 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. There are several well-known substances which can contribute to breathing problems:
- fine respirable silica dust
- solder fume
- some types of welding fume
- some types of two-part paint and foams
- dust or fume containing chromium, nickel or cadmium.
Employers should follow guidance and industry best practice to control the risks that exposure from these hazards may bring.
There are several ways of avoiding exposure to hazardous substances which can 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 oversite 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.
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) should be considered a control of last resort, to be used only when all other options have been considered.
Assessing the risk
Control measures should be formulated as part of an overall, robust risk assessment strategy. The assessment process should identify:
- potential hazards
- identification of who may be harmed
- quantify the risk and identify ways to minimise it
- record of the findings
- suitable review period to ensure that controls are effective.
As part of the process, employers may choose to employ an occupational hygienist to obtain environmental samples such as air or noise monitoring. This will help them to identify and quantify which potential hazards put their employees at risk.
Employers may also consider appointing an occupational health provider where there is a high risk of harm, or following advice from a third party. Occupational health providers deliver many services but in this instance, the two most appropriate would be:
1) Health surveillance to aid in the early identification of work-related illness, allowing prompt intervention to minimise the likelihood of further harm.
2) A 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.
Employers need to act now to protect future health of workers
Occupational lung disease can take many years to emerge and be exacerbated and complicated by other risk factors, for example if the individual has underlying health conditions or is a regular smoker.
Workplaces have a duty of care to protect the health and safety of workers including their exposure to hazards and substances which may cause or further complicate a lung problem. The more employers mitigate the risks, the less chance people will have of developing a work-related lung disorder later in life.
Contact us for occupational health support
If you want to support the health and wellbeing of your employees and minimise the risks and impact of work-related lung disorders, get in touch with us via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: 0121 601 4041.
Sources: Asthma and Lung UK (2022); HSE (2021); British Occupational Hygiene Society (2022)