According to research by the Health and Safety Executive, it is estimated that a staggering 13,000 new cases of respiratory problems caused or aggravated by work, are diagnosed each year in Great Britain. Around 12,000 deaths are also believed to be caused by occupational respiratory diseases, of which two thirds are “long latency illnesses” – such as those related to asbestos exposure.
From the smoking ban that came into force in 2007 to the 2012 update on asbestos control regulations, efforts are clearly being made to reduce exposure to such substances in both public spaces and at work, as well as to better manage associated risks.
However, much is yet to be achieved. A series of studies run by the Labour Force Survey between 2009 and 2012 focused on those who reported breathing or lung problems caused or aggravated by work. The studies found that the general work environment was identified as the main contributing factor, making up 20% of cases. Other named factors included exposure to “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%) and “dusts from flour, grain/cereal, animal feed or straw” (7%).
So, what are the risks?
A wide range of respiratory diseases are caused or aggravated by environmental factors or exposure to harmful substances within the workplace:
- Asthma – the most common occupational lung disease. Isocyanates, flour/grain, adhesives, metals, resins, colophony, fluxes, latex, animals, aldehydes and wood dust are reported as the most common irritants.
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD), a range of respiratory illnesses including chronic bronchitis, emphysema and chronic obstructive airways disease. Although exposure specifically to tobacco smoke is the most common cause, vapours, dusts, gases and fumes can be contributing or aggravating factors too.
- Non-cancerous respiratory diseases such as pleural thickening and pleural plaques (mostly caused by asbestos exposure), allergic alveolitis (allergic reaction to organic material such as grain dust, avian proteins, cheese mould or mushroom compost), allergic rhinitis (a range of allergens can be involved, from tree pollens to mould spores or dust mites), or byssinosis (caused by inhalation of cotton dust).
- Respiratory cancers such as lung cancer or mesothelioma – a cancer that affects the covering of the lungs. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer, but mostly caused by exposure to asbestos. Lung cancers can also be caused by contact with other substances such as silica, mineral oils or diesel exhaust fumes.
- Pneumoconiosis – a group of lung diseases caused by the inhalation and retention in the lungs of dusts, most commonly from coal, asbestos or respirable crystalline silica. Between the initial exposure and the actual development of the disease, many years can pass. Consequently, new cases and deaths mostly stem from working conditions experienced in the distant past.
Keeping a watchful eye on symptoms
Early diagnosis is essential. Not only will this help mitigate the risks of deterioration but it will also be instrumental in protecting co-workers and new recruits. So what should workers and their managers look out for?
Any symptoms which improve when employees are away from work and then return (e.g. weekends / periods of annual leave), or symptoms which worsen when the subject is in the work environment (or for a few hours after finishing work) should be monitored. These include:
- Symptoms normally associated with conjunctivitis: red, sticky, watery or itchy eyes.
- Symptoms associated with rhinitis: 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 is set out in the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002, employers have a legal duty to make employees aware of any respiratory hazards present in the workplace, and to protect them accordingly. As well as relevant health and safety training, information about dangerous substances and instructions on how to handle them, access to suitable protective equipment and appropriate health checks, steps should be taken to eliminate or control exposure, such as using a safer substance or the use of equipment such as exhaust ventilation.
Following the recent report that nanofibres used to strengthen objects such as tennis rackets and aeroplane wings might be as harmful to the lungs as asbestos is, health and safety expert organisation the British Safety Council also advocates close collaboration between researchers and relevant manufacturing industries in order to address risks early.
Be proactive, not reactive
Preventing or adequately controlling exposure to respiratory hazards should remain the focus, and honest, direct communication between workers, health and safety representatives and management has a pivotal role to play.
Employees should feel comfortable raising concerns about risks and requesting appropriate personal protective equipment.
Additionally, a genuine culture of welfare and well-being at work will encourage employees to think about the risks that are particularly relevant to their industry. Moreover they will be increasingly vigilant about the safety of their colleagues and their surroundings.
Sabelline Chicot is a writer and editor working in digital publishing. She covers a wide range of business matters, from human resources to online security and health & safety. You can follow her on Twitter at @sabellinechicot.