Protecting workers' health
30 May 2013
The BOHS (British Occupational Hygiene Society) celebrated its 60th anniversary and grant of a Royal Charter by hosting a reception at The Royal Society in London on 19 March. To mark this double milestone, HSM talks to CEO Steve Perkins about the society's role in helping to tackle health hazards in the workplace
Looking back over its history, which of BOHS's initiatives do you think have had the greatest impact on occupational hygiene in the UK? Over the past 60 years, the aim of BOHS has always been and continues to be about protecting workers' health.
BOHS's Faculty of Occupational Hygiene has established a robust system of internationally recognised professional accreditations. With the award of our Royal Charter in 2012, there is now an assured process for professional development leading to the gold standard of 'Chartered Occupational Hygienist'.
BOHS has also helped set national and international standards on a range of health hazards, from asbestos clearance testing and bulk sampling to noise and dusts. Without these standards, the toll of ill-health and disease would undoubtedly have been much higher.
Finally, BOHS members have been behind some key technical innovations such as the Higgins and Dewell Cyclone Sampler and the Walton and Beckett Graticule for asbestos fibre counting.
These devices have helped quantify worker exposures, which has been critical in assessing real workplace health risks.
Which issues would you like to see BOHS deal with in the future? We would like to see a greater focus on exposures that lead to the big killers: occupational respiratory disease and occupational cancer. Whilst the number of workers dying as a result of accidents is steadily decreasing, deaths from occupational ill health remain stubbornly high.
I see BOHS acting as a catalyst for partnerships across the health and safety sector to address this, and convert the need for action on occupational disease, into demand for preventative solutions. This will involve raising awareness by partnering with employers, trade unions, researchers, industry and other professional bodies. We also aim to influence policy by developing science-based thought leadership on occupational health risk management.
How do you see the role of BOHS evolving? Ultimately it's for our members to determine the future role of BOHS.
Some of our key areas for focus are:
Increasing the visibility and influence of BOHS and of occupational hygiene Developing our core membership - BOHS membership is open to anyone with an interest in a healthy working environment Building on our qualifications, which include modules covering general principles and practical applications at foundation and intermediate levels, through to BOHS' own professional level certificate and diploma qualifications Expanding the sharing of UK knowledge and expertise internationally to help develop the global community of practice Growing the readership of our world-leading research journal The Annals of Occupational Hygiene'. Growing and expanding our international partner membership agreements, and investing to help new societies emerge, where there are currently none Building on our strong stable of scientific conferences
What are the biggest challenges in occupational hygiene that businesses face today? It would be nice to say that health hazards like asbestos, dust, lead, metal-working fluids, noise etc. are no longer an issue.
Unfortunately that is not the case as the HSE's current statistics (2011/12) show new cases recorded each year: 13,000 cancer registrations, 7,000 respiratory disease cases, etc. There are also new potential hazards emerging with things like nanotechnology applications or bio-hazards from the growing waste management and recycling industry. Ultimately the biggest challenges are awareness and compliance. Many businesses and workers are simply unaware of the risks of exposures.
When you consider that occupational ill-health and disease accounts for 43% of all incidents, 84% of all related sickness absence and 99% of the 12,000 work-related deaths each year, it makes you wonder how we can have a situation where the profession that provides solutions for so much of this burden is so under-represented. This is something BOHS is addressing.
Since joining the BOHS as CEO in 2009, are there any particular experiences that have left an impression on you? A few come to mind. I recall watching a video of a worker suffering from occupational-related COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). He described, between gasps for air, his exposures and how the disease had gradually robbed him of his health, his career and ultimately his life. To think that this was entirely preventable and wholly due to his employment was deeply shocking.
Something that is increasingly happening is, when I attend health and safety conferences I always try to ask the panels of experts in plenary discussions, why there isn't more focus on preventing occupational exposures and disease in the light of the awful statistics in the UK. This question is usually welcomed with applause because delegates know these issues are still going under the radar. The experts also usually welcome the question and agree there is a problem. But then unfortunately they rarely have any solutions to offer.
Finally, I'm constantly amazed at the huge contributions our members make voluntarily to the society's activities. Without their technical and strategic input we would not be able to achieve all that we have and continue to. For a relatively small society I believe BOHS 'punches above its weight' and that's really down to the efforts of our members.