HSE highlights importance of good health and safety practices to prevent killer respiratory diseases

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) earlier this year reported that 2012/2013 figures showed approximately 12,000 deaths a year resulting from occupational respiratory diseases with two thirds caused by exposure to asbestos.

Of those working in 2012, 35,000 people currently have breathing or lung problems which they believed were caused or made worse by their work and the HSE estimate that there are around 13,000 new cases each year.

Whilst a significant proportion of these cases are believed to be the result of asbestos exposure, there are many health problems that fall under the category of Respiratory Diseases ranging from Asthma through to lung cancer. Those that are not caused by workplace environments can be aggravated by them if those environments are not properly managed.

Common causes and aggravating factors of Respiratory Diseases

  • Asthma – The most common occupational lung disease, aggravated by irritants such as flour/grain, metals, animals, wood dust, latex etc.
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD) – Includes Chronic Bronchitis, Emphysema and Chronic Obstructive Airways Disease. Tobacco smoke is the most common cause but vapours, dusts, gases and fumes can also contribute and aggravate
  • Non- cancerous respiratory diseases – For example, pleural thickening and pleural plaques, generally caused by exposure to asbestos, and allergic reactions to grain dust, avian proteins, cheese mould, mushroom compost, pollens, mould spores and dust mites
  • Respiratory cancers – Caused by asbestos exposure or contact with silica, mineral oils or diesel exhaust fumes
  • Pneumoconiosis – Lung diseases caused by the inhalation and retention of coal, asbestos or silica dusts.

Studies carried out by the Labour Force Survey for the period 2009-2012 show that the main contributing factors in cases of lung or breathing problems are as follows:

  • Working environment – 20% of cases
  • dusts from stone, cement and concrete – just under 20%
  • airborne materials from spray painting or manufacturing foam products – 13%
  • airborne materials while welding, soldering, or cutting/grinding metals – 10%
  • dusts from flour, grain/cereal, animal feed or straw – 7%

Employers are legally bound to make employees aware of any respiratory hazards in the workplace and to provide adequate protection in line with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002.

Good health and safety training and support can minimise or remove the risk to employees of respiratory health issues. Risk assessments should be carried out to reduce the effects of dangerous substances and environmental solutions put into place, for example adequate ventilation, warning signs and appropriate equipment.

All employees should be kept properly informed about risks associated with the handling of dangerous substances and provided with appropriate guidelines for handling them as well as relevant health checks.

It is also wise to keep watch for the following symptoms, especially those that improve when employees are away from the workplace and return when back.

  • Symptoms normally associated with conjunctivitis: red, sticky, watery or itchy eyes
  • Rhinitis symptoms: sneezing, blocked, itchy, runny nose
  • Shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, pain upon inhaling, wheezing
  • Coughing fits
  • Frequent chest infections
  • Flu-like illness with fever, chest tightness, shortness of breath and dry cough (which may only last for a few hours after exposure).

As with all health and safety issues, creating a culture of openness and well-being in the work place will ensure that anyone with concerns about their health or the workplace environment’s impact on it, will feel able to raise them in a timely fashion. Prevention is always better than cure.