Reducing the Burden of Occupational Disease

On Tuesday I was at the NEC in Birmingham attending the “Health and Wellbeing at Work” event. BOHS had a stand in the exhibition but were also running the series of presentations on “Occupational Hygiene, Toxicology and Environmental Health”. I’d been asked to chair the sessions and also made two presentations – one in the morning on Reducing the Burden of Occupational Disease in the UK Today and the second in the afternoon, an introduction to managing heat stress at work.

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 there are other diseases too that aren’t included in these statistics. So the total number of people dying from occupational disease is even greater.

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.

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Many of these diseases are caused by the “traditional” agents and processes such as asbestos, silica, isocyanates, welding fume, flour dust and the like. As industry changes new hazards and risks emerge. For example nanoparticles are becoming increasingly common. The hazards and risks are still not fully understood but there are concerns about whether they may cause cardiovascular disease and, in some cases, cancer and other diseases. With environmental concerns recycling is becoming a major industry. Here workers can be exposed to a wide range of hazardous materials such as lead, mercury, cadmium and other toxic metals, and biological agents.

And it’s not just chemical agents. So, for example, exposure to noise can cause deafness and vibration from power tools can damage the nerves and vascular system. These conditions might not be fatal, but can have a significant impact on quality of life.

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If we’re to reduce this unacceptable burden od disease action is needed from various parties. The Health and Safety Executive clearly has a role in enforcing the law and providing guidance, but to do that they need to be supported by Government. But the key actions need to be taken at the point where the risks are created – in the workplace. Employers need to recognise where there are potential problems and decide where they may have a significant risk so that they can introduce appropriate measures to control exposure. This is where occupational hygienists come into the picture.

In some cases there’s already a solution, but employers may not be aware of it. An experienced occupational hygienist will be, however and can draw it to the employer’s attention and help them to implement it. With new and more novel risks occupational hygienists have the skills and experience to help devise a solution.

But to be successful, different groups need to make a serious commitment to take action and work together. And BOHS and occupational hygienists have an important role to play in this.

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