Occupational Hygiene Saves Lives

Taken from SHP Magazine (2014):

Occupational hygiene saves lives

Control strategies for long latency occupational disease tend to target workers’ respiratory health. But as Chris Keen explains, skin absorption and ingestion exposure are often overlooked.

Anyone who has seen the latest figures on long latency occupational disease will appreciate the sheer scale of the problem. HSE estimates that there were around 8,000 deaths attributed to occupational cancer in 2012/13.

Add to this 8,500 new cases of respiratory disease, which include life-changing conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and silicosis, and it’s clear that these long latency occupational diseases are a huge health burden. This costs the UK an estimated £8.2bn each year.

To add further perspective, there were 148 fatal workplace accidents over the same period, and 1,730 people killed in road traffic accidents.

The most effective way to combat this issue is by effectively managing the health risks, which is where occupational hygiene has a crucial role to play. Hygiene is about identifying robust, practical control solutions and ensuring that they are implemented in a sustainable way in workplaces as diverse as offshore oil exploration and chemical manufacture to farms and building sites. It’s about helping businesses to find the right strategies to protect their workers.

Too often, exposure control is not properly considered when dealing with harmful agents in the workplace. Poorly designed, inadequately maintained local exhaust ventilation (LEV) systems will not protect workers from harm. An over-reliance on respiratory protective equipment can be expensive, and may even result in a heavily contaminated workplace. Piles of wood dust around a workshop, created as a result of poor containment, can present additional safety risks, such as fire, and slip hazards. As an additional cost, time will be spent cleaning them up, whereas well designed engineering controls would prevent this.

Where hazards have been identified, risk control strategies often focus on preventing inhalation exposure. In 2013, HSE estimated that there were over 35,000 cases of occupational skin disease. Skin absorption is often overlooked, while ingestion exposure is recognised even less frequently. For substances that have systemic effects, such as many carcinogens, all routes of exposure add to the overall health risk.

Although the hygienist’s main goal is to control exposure in the first place, exposure measurement can be a useful tool in assessing risk as well as identifying where control efforts should be directed. Measurement is not an end in itself; the results from monitoring surveys need to stimulate action. Where excessive exposures are identified, controls should be reviewed and improved as a matter of urgency. Once adequate control is achieved, and sustained through an effective maintenance and testing programme, exposure measurement should play a diminished role in the overall control strategy.

Measurement can also provide assurance that controls are effective, and can be used to assure workers that they are being protected. It can also be used to identify individual workers who may not be using the controls available to their best effect. Quantitative evidence plays an important role in convincing individuals to do things properly, to follow safe systems of work, switch on LEV systems, and wear required PPE.

A competent hygienist can help duty holders to develop a robust, practical and cost-effective exposure control strategy, taking into account the human elements of the work activity. They will identify where exposure measurement is needed, and where resource is wasted. The hygienist can also prevent excessive expenditure on inappropriate LEV systems and PPE programmes. Above all, they can help reduce the numbers of people dying, or developing life-changing conditions, as a result of unnecessary exposures at work.

Chris Keen is a principal occupational hygienist at Health & Safety Laboratory (HSL).

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