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Something in the air?

16 April 2014

The TUC estimates that diseases caused through occupational exposure kill six times more employees than work-related accidents and has urged that occupational health should have the same priority as injury prevention measures. To reduce direct and indirect costs that currently equate worldwide to around 4% of global GDP it’s time to address occupational health issues and employ innovative technology that can help to reduce risk, particularly in the area of respiratory protection, says Neal Hill.

Because the effects of workplace accidents are more instantly felt, there’s often been a tendency to pay greater attention to issues surrounding safety than those relating to health, where exposure to dangers such as dust and noise take longer to wreak their own potentially harmful effect. However, the tide maybe turning.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) currently has more than 500 projects in action, which aim to put science at the heart of efforts to improve management of work-related risks. One of the highlights of a recent report, was the study of the causation, exposure and impact of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) on workers. There are an estimated 4,000 COPD-related deaths per year in the UK; that’s 30% of the total estimated deaths per year from work-related diseases. 

The study, which found, "significant associations between reported COPD and both organic vapours, gases, dusts and diseases (VGDF) and Job Exposure Matrix (JEM)-defined exposures,” should serve to highlight the serious occupational health issues that exposure to work related particles and substances can cause. 

The working environment can throw up some aggressive conditions including exposure to chemicals, high pressure fluids, extremes of temperature, molten metals, or a whole catalogue of further dangers but health and safety practices are sometimes based on an oversimplified assessment of risk to comply with the most basic demands of legislation. However, more enlightened companies are following more proactive risk reduction strategies.  
When it comes to addressing the dangers posed by contaminated atmospheres the problem is often one of perception. Deadly gases such as hydrogen sulphide (H2s) that pose an immediate threat to life naturally attract the most attention. However, the effects of exposure to potentially toxic dusts can be extremely harmful, despite the long latency period of any developing condition. It may take many years before symptoms, such as cancers of the lungs, throat and nose as well as other respiratory conditions including emphysema and asthma, present themselves.

To prevent the losses to both employee health and business profitability that range from lost working hours as well as claims for compensation as a result of serious illness, businesses can take advantage of modern instrumentation to monitor conditions.  Customer expectations are high given the growing deployment of sensors in the home and the environment but modern instrumentation is providing increasingly sophisticated answers. 

For example personal sampling pumps can be used to help quantify the presence of harmful contaminants such as dust and vapours in the atmosphere.  

There has been a welcome trend in the modern engineering environment for many years now towards tightening up health & safety in the workplace. Statistics presented at health and safety events frequently illustrate that the vast majority of industrial accidents are attributed to complacency, and the audience is urged to think about what they would miss most if they lost their sight or the ability to walk?  Of increasing concern are the less visible dangers - such as the effect of fine, respirable dust produced by many industrial processes - and the risks they pose to human health.  With more research and analysis of the kind discussed at the top of this article, and more innovative technology to make the detection of dust and noise easier and more efficient, together we can defend the workforce against not only the short term but the long-term threats to their well-being.
Neal Hill is product line manager for Casella.