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Preventing work-related lung disease

07 November 2017

Lung disease remains a serious problem in the workplace.

This years’ Workplace Healthy Lungs Summit taking place on 22 November 2017 will describe what the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is doing about it, what you can do, and what science and evidence can tell us.

Here, Summit speaker Mike Slater (Managing Director, Diamond Environmental) speaks about the problem of work-related lung disease and how to prevent it.

In the UK, there are currently approximately 12,000 deaths each year due to occupational respiratory diseases. That equates to 32 people per day yet we don’t hear about that on the news. These deaths aren’t dramatic. They’re “slow”. They happen away from the public gaze.

And it’s not just about fatalities. Occupational disease affects quality of life. According to the HSE over a million people believe their health has been affected by their work.

Although the use of asbestos has been prohibited in the UK, it is still present in many buildings, and there is a risk of exposure where the material degrades. As even low exposures to asbestos can lead to the development of mesothelioma, a serious cancer of the tissue surrounding the lungs, it is likely that workers will continue to develop asbestos related disease for many years to come.

Silicosis, a serious lung disease caused by exposure to very fine particles of dust containing crystalline silica is sometimes considered to be a disease of the 19th and 20th Centuries. However, there are still a significant number of cases in the UK, particularly in the construction industry.

Other respiratory diseases also continue to be a problem, including asthma in bakers, paint sprayers and other workers and hypersensitivity pneumonitis associated with exposure to metalworking fluids.

New technology also presents risks to health. Carbon nanotubes used in nanotechnology and electronics have many similarities with asbestos and some evidence suggests that they may present the same health hazards as asbestos, particularly mesothelioma.

Most cases of occupational lung disease could be prevented if the risks were properly understood and action was taken to ensure that they are managed, controlled and eliminated.

There are many different measures that can be implemented to control exposure to hazardous substances and a list of measures can be developed in order of priority - the “Hierarchy of Control”.

The hierarchy is a useful tool but, in most cases, more than one measure will need to be implemented to properly control exposure.
No matter how good the technology applied to solve a problem it can only be effective if it is used, and used properly. There are many examples in industry where expensive control measures are installed only for them to remain unused, used infrequently or used incorrectly thereby rendering them ineffective. Effective management measures need to be put into place which include:

  • Information, instruction and training to ensure workers know why the controls are needed, how to use them correctly, procedures for reporting faults etc
  • Supervision to ensure that the procedures are followed
  • Maintenance and testing to ensure that engineering controls continue to operate effectively
  • Auditing of procedures
  • Exposure monitoring and health surveillance as additional checks that the controls are effective.

For common industrial processes there are well tested solutions that will ensure control of the hazardous substances, it’s just a matter of finding the information which is already out there. The best places to start are the HSE website, and particularly the microsite for their Go Home Healthy campaign which has a particular focus on tackling lung disease, and websites by other organisations such as the Breathe Freely Campaign.

However, where there is a new process or new substance being handled, there are situations when a ready-made solution isn’t available. In such cases, occupational hygienists have the knowledge and skills to help employers assess the risks and develop new solutions.

Mike Slater, Diamond Environmental (BOHS Past President)

Mike Slater will speak at this years’ HSL Workplace Healthy Lungs Summit taking place on 22 November 2017. You can book your place here: https://www.hsl.gov.uk/health-and-safety-training-courses/workplace-healthy-lungs-summit-2017