The importance of conducting a risk assessment and occupational health surveillance

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 and the Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999, require employers to make an assessment of the risks that their employees are exposed to which may affect their health, including respiratory sensitizers and irritants. The risks should be controlled and monitored and, where appropriate, health surveillance should be undertaken.

In accordance with these regulations, a company which builds hot-tub deckings using Western Red Cedar wood bonded with isocyanate-based glue, was sentenced after failure to control the risks of exposure to wood dust and adhesives at its plant. The company was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for failing to control or assess the substances which are known to cause ill health and severe allergic reactions between August 2006 and April 2008.

The firm was investigated after an employee suffered anaphylactic shock in February 2007 and reported the incident to the safety watchdog. The 45-year-old worker was taken to hospital with severe breathing difficulties after using an adhesive and being exposed to wood dust while sanding frames, but the company failed to carry out its own investigation into the cause of the employee’s ill-health.

The firm continued to use the same materials despite not:

  • carrying out a risk assessment to identify materials likely to cause allergic reactions;
  • telling employees about the risks of working with such substances;
  • pinpointing which employees were exposed to risk;
  • providing any health surveillance for employees.

HSE inspectors also found that local exhaust ventilation was inadequate to control exposure to the harmful wood dust and glue vapours, and whilst staff had access to overalls, gloves and masks on site, no training, guidance or rules were provided regarding their use.

Occupational health surveillance (watching out for early signs of work-related ill health in employees exposed to certain health risks) is distinct from general health checks; the decision to carry out health surveillance would stem from pinpointing health hazards during a risk assessment. Employers who want advice on issues such as which type of health surveillance to choose, how and when to carry out the assessment, and who to involve in the process, should speak to the Health for Work Adviceline (www.health4work.nhs.uk0800 0 77 88 44) for further guidance.

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