Guest blog: Tell-tale signs of respiratory problems in the workplace

Photo by PhotoLabXL via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence.

Photo by PhotoLabXL via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence.

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.

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Have you got a good work life balance?

Photo by adesigna via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by adesigna via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

The term ‘work life balance’ is one we’ve all heard before, but how many of us really ever give much thought to the way we balance out our work commitments with the rest of our lives? For many, the pressure to get through workloads can lead them to battle through work, however long it takes, rather than giving thought to whether the workload and timescales are realistic, and whether they are putting themselves under too much pressure. After all, our work needs to get done!

A precondition, of course, for developing a work/life balance is being in work in the first place. Whilst work may cause stress to some, it’s generally accepted that being unemployed for extended periods is detrimental to a person’s wellbeing, so throwing in the work towel if it all becomes too much probably isn’t the best way to go. It’s a question of working out what we derive in terms of pleasure, self-esteem or satisfaction from particular elements of our lives, and ensuring that there’s a workable balance between these various parts.

Many organisations are increasingly embracing the concept of flexible working in order to make it easier for workers to fit their work in around their home commitments. Working from home using smartphones or ‘cloud hosting’ is one way of helping employees to be productive even if they are unable to get to the office for whatever reason. Arguably, there is a debate to be had here concerning whether this ability to work at any time and in any place may indeed cause stress in itself, making it difficult for people to know when to switch off from work – but this is too big a topic to cover in within the scope of this blog.

So, how can employers help workers to manage their work/life balance, without being seen to be overstepping the mark? They could provide information about mental health and wellbeing, including work-related stress, and make sources of further information readily available to staff at all levels. They could also try to provide opportunities for physical activity linked to the workplace (e.g. lunchtime informal team sports) as a way of de-stressing and promoting a more convivial atmosphere in the workplace. And, possibly most importantly, employers should keep lines of communication open with employees so that employers can spot if somebody appears to be stressed, anxious or overworked in order to take steps to lighten their load and address their issues. For information on a whole host of issues relating to health at work, see the Health for Work Adviceline website, blog or knowledge base.

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Obesity – a disability for the purposes of discrimination legislation?

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Obesity is a term used to describe somebody who is overweight with a high degree of body fat, and there are different levels of obesity (a person with a BMI between 30 and 40 would be considered to be ‘obese’, whilst a person with a BMI over 40 would be considered ‘morbidly obese’ or ‘very obese’.

Being obese increases a person’s risk of developing a number of serious and potentially life-threatening diseases, such as:

  • type 2 diabetes;
  • heart disease;
  • some types of cancer (e.g. breast cancer and colon cancer);
  • stroke.

People who are obese (particularly those who are very obese) may well also experience issues that reduce their quality of life and make their everyday lives more difficult (e.g. difficulty moving around, knee problems from carrying too much weight, bowel and stomach problems, fatigue, etc.).

Under the Equality Act 2010, which aims to provide a single set of rules that cover all kinds of discrimination, people are classed as having disabilities if they have physical or mental impairments that have substantial and adverse long-term effects on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. So, using this definition, would people count as disabled if their obesity were affecting their day-to-day activities?

In itself, obesity does not count as a disability, although being obese (particularly being very obese) will increase the likelihood of a person suffering from related issues that might fall within the definition of obesity in legislation. So, employers need to consider whether their employees have an impairment that is making their everyday lives difficult for them, and whether the negative impact of the impairment(s) have been ‘substantial and long-term’ (i.e. 12 months, or more).

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Equality Act 2010, see our guide or blog, or if you’re interested in the relationship between health and work, why not browse through the Health for Work Adviceline’s knowledge base, blogs and website to find relevant guides and blogs?

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26 March is Purple Day – raising awareness of epilepsy

Photo by David Baxendale via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence.

Photo by David Baxendale via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence.

Purple Day (26th March each year) is an international day for epilepsy awareness. This year, the organisers of Purple Day hope to ‘turn the world purple’ – people can do anything they like to mark the day, so long as it’s purple.

Purple was chosen to represent the day based on the colour lavender, which is the international colour for epilepsy; the lavender flower is also often associated with solitude, which is representative of the feelings of isolation many people affected by epilepsy and seizure disorders often feel.

According to Epilepsy Action, epilepsy affects one in every 103 people in the UK, yet it is a very misunderstood (and therefore feared) and stigmatised condition. It is a condition of the brain that is characterised by recurrent seizures (when there is a sudden excessive electrical discharge that disrupts the normal activity of the nerve cells in the brain), which can take many different forms, including  muscle spasms, uncontrolled movements, altered awareness, odd sensations, ‘losing a few minutes’ and not knowing what has happened, or convulsions. If epilepsy is successfully controlled by medication, a person may be seizure-free so there is no reason why they shouldn’t lead a normal working life.

Employers need to carry out a risk assessment of employees diagnosed with epilepsy in order to identify any possible safety risks to the employee or others in the workplace. As epilepsy affects each person differently and every workplace is different it is not possible to have set guidelines for risk assessments for people with epilepsy. A risk assessment may indicate that a person’s epilepsy would have little effect on their ability to continue with their job, that some changes may be needed (i.e. avoiding the use of dangerous machinery) or, in some cases, that certain parts of a person’s job pose too much risk and should therefore be avoided. Information from the risk assessment (and subsequent re-assessments) should then be used to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace.

More information on epilepsy can be found in the epilepsy guide on our website. Or, for information on keeping employees and workplaces healthy, see the Health for Work Adviceline website, blog or knowledge base. To request a Purple Pack to find out more information about how to become involved in Purple Day, visit Epilepsy Action’s website.

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Smoking and work

Photo by kevinrwalsh via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by kevinrwalsh via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

According to new research released by the British Heart Foundation, smoking breaks and additional sick leave are costing UK businesses £8.7 billion in lost productivity every year.

Most of us don’t need to be reminded of the significant health risks associated with smoking, such as:

  • heart disease (the main cause of death amongst smokers);
  • cancer (e.g. lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, cancer of the larynx and mouth);
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and emphysema;
  • strokes.

Yet despite the risk of significant health damage and potential death (around half of regular smokers will eventually die due to smoking, according to Ash, January 2014), there are around 10 million adult smokers in the UK.

According to the British Heart Foundation, the average smoker takes four ten-minute smoking breaks each day and, on average, smokers take nearly one day more off sick compared to their non-smoking colleagues. And, with approximately one fifth of the UK’s workforce still comprised of smokers, it’s quite easy to see how these costs rack up over time.

Employers aren’t blind to these costs and, increasingly, their response is to discourage smoking as much as possible, particularly as workers are an organisation’s main asset, so helping them to remain healthy and productive should be considered a priority.

For information on keeping workers (and organisations) healthy, view the resources on the Health for Work Adviceline website, blog and knowledge base.

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Working at height regulations updated as part of the Red Tape Challenge

Photo by siette via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by siette via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) guidance on working at height was overhauled and updated in January 2014 as part of the Government’s long-term economic plan (the Red Tape Challenge) to abolish or simplify outdated or over-complicated regulations. The aim of the Red Tape Challenge is to engage people in discussion about what needs to be changed, and for the Government to use this feedback to produce proposals on regulatory reform.

More than a million British businesses and 10 million workers are estimated to carry out jobs involving some form of work at height every year. Falls are one of the biggest causes of death and serious injury at work. The updated guidance on working at height sets out in clear, simple terms what to do and what not to do, as well as debunking some common myths that can confuse and mislead employers and workers (e.g. the untrue rumour that ladders/stepladders cannot be used for working at height).

The updated guidance will help organisations to manage serious risks sensibly and proportionately, and will help workers to be clearer about their own responsibilities for working safely. For information on work health topics, with a view to keeping your workplace healthy and productive, please view the Health for Work Adviceline’s website, blog or knowledge base.

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Eating Disorders Awareness Week

Photo by via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

It’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week (24 February – 2 March 2014), which aims to raise awareness and understanding of eating disorders, challenge stereotypes and stigma, and raise funds for Beat (which provides support to people with eating disorders, as well as their family and friends).

The fundraising campaign during Eating Disorders Awareness Week is Sock it to Eating Disorders. It offers the chance for friends, family or work colleagues to get together wear their silliest socks, have fun and raise vital funds for Beat.

The importance of acting swiftly

If timely treatment is sought for eating disorders, it is possible for sufferers to return to a normal, fulfilling life. However, if left untreated, eating disorders may compromise a person’s ability to function at work and can result in irreversible physical damage to the body.

Unfortunately, eating disorders are typically not diagnosed until the disease has reached an advanced stage, mainly because sufferers will often go to great lengths to keep their condition from friends and colleagues, by which time treatment is often lengthy and expensive. As with many other conditions, prevention is better than cure, so promoting good physical and mental health at work (e.g. health promotion initiatives) and raising awareness of eating disorders may help prevent eating disorders going unnoticed.

Our blog (originally posted in February 2012) offers a summary of some of the main types of eating disorders and why they might come about. Or for more general information about looking after the health at staff, see the resources on the Health for Work Adviceline website and knowledge base.

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Work stress – HSE management standards

Photo by Crashmaster007 via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Crashmaster007 via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

The HSE’s ‘management standards’ for work-related stress define the culture of an organisation where risks from work-related stress are being effectively managed. The six management standards cover the primary sources of stress at work:


  • Quantitative demands (workload, working hours, quantity and intensity of work). Workload is a persistent factor that contributes to work-related stress, and is one that organisations find difficult to resolve as it implies increased financial resources, such as extra staffing. Long hours will inevitably also lead to stress.
  • Qualitative demands (emotional and cognitive demands at work including work-life balance issues, complexity of work, dealing with angry clients and suffering patients, feeling afraid, having to hide emotions, etc.)


  • Autonomy (deciding when to take a break, flexible working time, deciding how to work, etc).
  • Decision latitude and room for manoeuvre.
  • Control over work, including control over pace of work and over job content and decision-making power.
  • Predictability of work.
  • Use and possibility to develop skills.


  • Encouragement and resources offered by the organisation, management and colleagues.


  • Social support from colleagues or supervisor.
  • Management style and relationships with colleagues/managers/the organisation.
  • Violence and harassment at work.


  • The perception of the role the employee holds in the organisation.
  • Whether employees are clear about what is expected of them.
  • Employer ensuring employees have no conflicting roles.


  • How organisational change is managed and communicated in the organisation. Change is considered to be a key stress factor for workers in the UK. The recent economic crisis has meant that increased numbers of organisations are undergoing change, which has increased the potential to cause stress among employees.

Even employers who do all they can to work with employees to manage these six risk factors may find employees succumbing to stress. Whilst stress isn’t necessarily an illness in itself, mental or physical illness can develop if stress is prolonged and/or excessive. Employers have a general duty to ensure the health of their employees at work, which includes taking steps to ensure they don’t suffer stress in the workplace. For information on stress in the workplace, see the Health for Work Adviceline website and knowledge base.

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Health and Work Service – helping those with four weeks’ sickness absence to return to work

Photo by Walt Stoneburner via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Walt Stoneburner via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

The new Health and Work Service (the Service) has been receiving a substantial amount of news coverage in the past week or so as individuals, employers and organisations take stock of how the new service might affect them. Views that are currently being expressed about the service (including 829 comments already written in response to a piece published on the BBC News website a few days ago) range from clear support for the concept, to criticism of how it might work and what it is aiming to achieve.

The new Service will provide advice via the internet and telephone, and an occupational health assessment and case management for those who have been on, or are expected to reach, four weeks’ sickness absence. The occupational health assessment will consider the issues preventing an employee from returning to work and provide advice to the employee, employer and GP on how to overcome these issues. The information will include, where relevant, a timetable for a return to work, fitness for work advice and signposting to work-focused interventions. All employees will be case managed through this part of the service to ensure they are supported and their level of need is correctly identified.

Interestingly, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) expressed the view that the new Service should be mandatory and include sanctions for employers who do not cooperate with it. The OECD’s Mental Health and Work in the UK report recommended “tighter obligations and sanctions for non-compliance for employers should be considered if they fail to co-operate with and implement measures recommended by the Health and Work Service”. In fact, according to an article in Workplace Savings and Benefits, Lord Freud (Minister for Welfare Reform) acknowledged at the launch of the OECD’s Mental Health and Work in the UK report that it has not been ruled out for employer participation in the new Service to become mandatory if its initial voluntary structure is not a success.

We’d love to hear your views on the new Service. And, in the meantime, if you need information about work health issues, don’t forget to use the resources on the Health for Work Adviceline website.

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Occupational cancer – minimising the risks

Photo by Pulmonary Pathology under Creative Commons Licence, via Flickr

Photo by Pulmonary Pathology under Creative Commons Licence, via Flickr

4 February 2004 was World Cancer Day, which forms part of the wider campaign to significantly reduce premature deaths from cancer and improve the quality of life for cancer sufferers and cancer survival rates.

According to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures (from August 2012) occupational ill-health accounted for over 20 million working days lost and an estimated 12, 000 deaths per year. Occupational cancer caused by exposure to carcinogens in the workplace is a major component of occupational ill health. It causes approximately 8,000 deaths and a further 14,000 cancer registrations annually, and is a major drain on the UK economy.

Unlike workplace accidents, which are easy to link directly to an incident in the workplace, it can often take several decades for cancer to develop following exposure to carcinogens making it difficult to associate cancer with work in many cases, especially if people have changed jobs or retired by the time the cancer is diagnosed.

Employers need to ensure that risks to health are minimised as much as possible, perhaps by substituting dangerous materials, providing personal protective equipment (PPE), or carrying out health surveillance to monitor the health of those who are potentially at risk in the workplace (if the need is identified from a risk assessment). This is often considered on a case-by-case basis according to the level of exposure, and depends on whether there is screening available. It is helpful to keep a register of projects involving the handling of carcinogens and the levels to which staff are exposed.

For more information on protecting the health of people in the workplace, see the guides on the Health for Work Adviceline knowledge base or search our blog.

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