Heatwave in India – implications for workers

It’s rare that the concerns of ordinary workers makes the news in Europe, but over the past few days there have been reports in the British press about fatalities being caused by a severe heatwave in India.

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(Picture Source; www.commondreams)

According to the Guardian over 2,200 people have died

Andhra Pradesh has been hit the hardest, with 1,636 people dying from the heat over the past month and a half, a government statement said. A further 561 people have died in neighbouring Telangana, said Sada Bhargavi, a state disaster management commissioner.

Environmental conditions have been severe. The Guardian reports

Daytime temperatures hovered between 45C and 47C (113-116 F) in parts of the two states over the weekend, 3-7C (5-12F) above normal, said YK Reddy, a director of the Meteorological Centre in the Telangana state capital of Hyderabad.

The risk from heat stress depends not only on the environmental conditions but also on other factors, particularly

  • workload
  • clothing
  • individual susceptibility

Workers carrying out heavy work for prolonged periods in hot conditions are particularly at risk as they generate significant “internal” heat as well as absorbing it from the environment. Susceptible individuals include the elderly and people who are malnourished. Not surprisingly, then, the majority of the people who have died during the heatwave have been the elderly and manual labourers working outdoors.

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Agricultural workers in India (source Wikipedia)

There are over 3 million construction workers employed in India (the figure is likely to be higher if “informal” workers are included) and many millions more working in agriculture (almost 50% of the workforce). Construction and agriculture are also major industries in other hot countries in the developing world, and there have been reports of numerous heat related illnesses and fatalities linked to manual work in hot conditions in countries such as Qatar, where there has been a boom in construction due to preparations for the 2022 World Cup.

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Construction workers in Qatar (toehk under a Creative Commons Licence via New Internationalist)

The most effective ways to minimise the risks are to prevent exposure or to introduce engineering controls supplemented with work organisation and protective clothing. However engineering controls are impractical in most cases for outdoor workers in the developing world and the so the main way to minimise the risk of workers being adversely affected is to restrict the working time through work:rest regimes or “self pacing” and other administrative /management measures such as providing plenty of cool drinking water. In practice, most employers are unlikely to look favourably on this due to the impact on productivity and profitability. Subsistence farmers are unable to afford the technology available in the developed world (such as air conditioned cabs and automation) that could be applied to reduce their heat exposure and workload and need to work hard for long hours to have a chance of growing enough to survive.

Extreme events like the current heatwave in India are likely to become more frequent in the future due to climate change and it’s not just the developing world that will be affected. The populations of Europe and the United States are also likely to face exposure to heat extremes.

These events present challenges to occupational hygienists. First of all we currently don’t have an adequate method of evaluating the risk in these situations, particularly in the developing countries. The widely used WBGT index has serious limitations and the more complex Predicted Heat Strain Index is far too complex to be used in most situations. So work needs to be done to develop a suitable approach to risk assessment for the developing world. Secondly, given the scale of the problem, there’s a need to find appropriate, effective strategies to reduce and control exposures. Neither are easy tasks. However, some good work has been done on this in countries including India and Abu Dhabi and so the third challenge is persuading employers to adopt the guidance.

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Who are Workplace Health Without Borders?

Workplace Health Without Borders (WHWB) is an organisation of occupational hygienists and other occupational health professionals who want to do something about the estimated 2 million people who die every year due to ill health caused by their work, and the countless millions of workers who suffer from work related illnesses. WHWB was established in Canada in 2011 and now has members in countries across the world.

The organisation’s stated mission is to work for a world where none is made ill by their work. A grand aim which will be far from easy to achieve. But WHWB are doing their part in trying to achieve it by working to transfer occupational hygiene expertise, training and resources to developing countries to help them to develop the capacity and local infrastructure to manage and improve health conditions in their workplaces.

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Projects undertaken by WHWB members include

  • established a mentoring programme to provide support, advice and encouragement to occupational hygienists in the developing word
  • establishing a brick plant project to address silica and other hazards in brick plants in Nepal, Pakistan and Tanzania
  • providing technical support on silica dust monitoring in Pakistan
  • facilitated donations of occupational hygiene equipment to Uruguay, Pakistan and Tanzania
  • running the OHTA Basic Principles of Occupational Hygiene course in Tanzania
  • providing training on occupational hygiene to physicians in New Delhi, India
  • sponsored a workshop in India to raise awareness on silica exposure amongst stone crushers

WHWB also organise monthly teleconferences for their members across the globe to share knowledge and experience.

WHWB members attending the recent International Occupational Hygiene Association conference organised a lunchtime meeting to introduce interested delegates to the organisation, its aims, objectives, activities and projects. Over 50 delegates attended the meeting and there was a lot of enthusiasm for what WHWB are doing.

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WHWB co-sponsored the 7th International Control Banding Workshop in partnership with Medgate, which took place at the Conference, and there were also contributions from two WHWB members to the Conference programme. Kevin Hedges from Canada gave an Ignite presentation – Workplace Health Without Borders, Together We Will Make A Difference! – and Dave Zalk from the USA presented a scientific poster entitled Workplace Health Without Borders: Sharing occupational health and hygiene knowledge around the world.

Anyone interested in getting involved can sign up by visiting the WHWB website

Breathe Freely

On the evening of 28 April, Workers’ Memorial Day, the Breathe Freely initiative, which aims to raise awareness of respiratory disease in the construction industry, was launched at a reception at the Merchant Taylor’s Hall in London. The room was packed with 140 people, mainly representatives from the Construction industry.

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Breathe Freely is a collaborative initiative led by BOHS in partnership with key organisations within the construction industry. It will provide guidance, tools and resources that facilitate the recognition, evaluation and control of workplace exposures leading to the implementation of a recognised management standard. The aim is not just to raise awareness of the problem but also to effect action by providing practical solutions through sharing of best practice and encouraging implementation of effective exposure control.

Exposure to hazardous substances that can cause respiratory disease is a serious, but often unappreciated, risk for construction workers. However, the number of workers affected can be reduced dramatically if employers adopt good practice and introduce appropriate, cost effective, control measures.  The BOHS led Breathe Freely campaign will be a major step forward in highlighting both the risks and, very importantly, the measures that can be used to minimise them. Diamond Environmental is proud to be a supporter of the initiative

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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Hello world!

Hello world!

This blog has been set up as a forum for Diamond Environmental Ltd. to communicate with people attending our  courses for occupational hygienists.

To get things started I thought I’d make a few comments about what occupational hygiene is. I’m sure most people think that its something to do with cleaning out the works toilets or possibly cleaning teeth.

What is it about then? Well the definition of hygiene provided by the online dictionary http://dictionary.reference.com/ is

  1. The science that deals with the promotion and preservation of health.
  2. Conditions and practices that serve to promote or preserve health

In other words its about preventing ill health, so occupational hygiene is simply about preventing ill health caused by work.

In Great Britain, according to official statistics, 229 workers were killed at work in 2007/8 due to accidents. Its relatively easy to gather this sort of information – its very difficult to hide the fact that somebody has been killed. But its considerably more difficult to obtain accurate figures on the number of people who die due to a disease they’ve contracted due to their work. As most industrial disease takes many years to develop the individuals may have moved job, or even retired. Some diseases can have more than one cause (some work related, others not) and its not always easy to decide exactly what caused it. So statistics on ill health at work are not absolutely certain. One fatal disease that is almost always work related is mesothelioma of the pleura, a cancer of the lung lining which is caused by exposure to certain types of asbestos. In 2006, two thousand and fifty six (2056) people in Great Britain died due to mesothelioma, almost ten times as many as were killed by accidents at work. (The numbers are increasing and are expected to peak at around 2450 deaths in 2015.) And that’s only one work related disease. There are others including other types of cancer, other lung diseases, such as silicosis, and diseases affecting other organs. On an international scale, the World Health Organisation estimates that there are around two million work-related deaths per year.

Of course not everyone dies from disease. Work related ill health can have other impacts on life, causing discomfort, pain and disability. Its difficult to obtain reliable statistics on this, but a survey by the UK Health and Safety Executive indicated that 2.1 million people in Great Britain suffer from an illness they believed was caused or made worse by their current or past work.

So ill health caused by work is a serious problem, even if its not as visible as the results of accidents at work. Occupational hygienists work to reduce the number of people affected. We do that by

  • recognising where there are potential problems that could cause ill health
  • evaluating the degree of risk – i.e. how serious the problem is in practice
  • finding ways to control the risk