On 2 July the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) released their provisional data on the numbers of workers killed in accidents at work. They revealed that 133 workers were fatally injured in the period between April 2013 and March 2014 compared with 150 in the previous year. This continues the trend in a reduction in the number of fatalities in recent years.
The figures on deaths from mesothelioma were also published on 2 July. These showed that there were 2 535 deaths from this disease in 2012, continuing the increasing trend.
The latest statistics on deaths from ill health, other than mesothelioma, are not available at the time of writing. However, HSE estimates that around 13 000 deaths each year are attributable to occupational disease – primarily respiratory diseases and occupational cancers, arising from exposure to dusts, fumes, chemicals and work circumstances. If anything, this is an underestimate – many suspected sources of work-related disease have not been fully evaluated.
The reduction in deaths from accidents at work are to be welcomed. The reasons are complex and reflect a number of factors, including the efforts of employers to manage safety risks and good work by the HSE. However, the situation on occupational ill health remains of great concern. Deaths from occupational diseases far outnumber those from accidents at work by a ratio of more than 80 to 1. It’s a situation that really can’t be allowed to continue.
Most occupational disease can be prevented by applying occupational hygiene principles. So why doesn’t this happen? There are many reasons but one important factor is that accidents happen now and have an immediate effect on business. Ill health is long term and the consequences don’t occur until many years after exposure and don’t impact on short term profitability. But there’s a knowledge gap too – lack of recognition that there’s a problem due to poor understanding of health issues and limited understanding of good control practice for chemical hazards.
Occupational hygienists have the knowledge and skills to identify, assess health risks in the workplace, design control measures and develop control strategies. Action by employers and the HSE is urgently needed to prevent and control exposures at work to those agents that can cause occupational ill-health. To do that they’re going to need the support from competent professional occupational hygienists.