Occupational Respiratory Disease

  Posted August 12, 2019

Work-related respiratory disease is not just one singular disease. The term covers a range of illnesses that are caused or made worse by breathing in hazardous substances in the workplace. Substances that damage the lungs can be dusts, fumes or gases. The most prevalent of the diseases that are termed occupational respiratory diseases are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma and silicosis.

12,000 Deaths A Year

Overall there are currently approximately 12,000 deaths each year due to occupational respiratory disease. Two-thirds of these deaths are due to asbestos-related diseases or COPD. In addition, according to the HSE, there are about 35, 000 people who worked in the last year, and 130,000 who had ever worked who currently have breathing or lung problems they thought were caused or made worse by work. There is also a further estimated 13,000 new cases each year.

Industries With High Prevalence

There are a number of industries and workplace activities across the UK which are linked to a high incidence and greater risk of respiratory disease. This may be because there is a large population of potentially exposed employees or there is evidence of a high incidence rate. These priority industries are:

  • Construction workers
  • Foundry workers
  • Welders
  • Quarry and stone workers
  • Agricultural workers
  • Vehicle paint sprayers
  • Bakery workers

Occupational Health Strategies

Within each of these industries it is important to introduce occupational health strategies that you can use to control respiratory disease exposure and ensure the lung health of your employees as part of your health and safety policy. Key among these would be the use of personal protection equipment where necessary. It is also worthwhile to consider including a health surveillance strategy in your overall planning. In this way you can continually assess the ongoing health of your employees.

Lung Function Testing in The Workplace

As part of a health surveillance strategy in these industries it is important to include lung function testing in the workplace. Spirometry will be a good indicator of any damage to an employee’s lungs and will flag any employee who may need referral. This strategy protects your employees and your business. We have outlined in further detail the process and employer’s obligations in relation to lung function testing here. Lets look at each industry in isolation, the issues and the intervention tactics in place. We will also detail where you can get good information.

Construction workers

Construction workers have a high incidence of respiratory problems, with the main cause being exposure to dusts and respirable crystalline silica (RCS). Exposure to RCS can result in silicosis. Other prevalent respiratory diseases amongst construction workers are COPD and asthma. Asbestosis is reducing exponentially within this industry but it has been a large concern in the past.

Key Activities That Put Employees At Risk

There are certain key activities that may put employees at risk from developing respiratory disease. The activities where exposures occur include:

  • kerb/paving/block-cutting
  • stone masonry/stone floor laying
  • tunnelling/demolition and chasing out/re-pointing.

Nationwide Initiatives

Partnership groups have been formed to design and implement initiatives to tackle RCS exposure in particular. These groups are composed of trade associations, professional organisations, suppliers and vocational training organisations that represent the cross section of industries where risks from exposure to silica are present. Examples of interventions that these groups have undertaken include:

  • Leaflets outlining the dangers of dust.
  • Events for employers design to raise awareness of risks and control methods.
  • Developing standards for on-tool extraction
  • Undertaking research projects to better understand and reduce RCS exposure.

By registering, information on these and other initiatives is available on the Occupational Disease Community site run in conjunction with the HSE. Specific guidance for employers on health risks in construction is available on the construction web pages on the HSE site.

Foundry workers

Foundry workers can be exposed to multiple harmful substances including fumes and dusts, nickel compounds and RCS. Exposures can lead to a number of lung diseases including asthma and silicosis and are associated with the generation of dusts and fumes, or the actual usage or creation of harmful materials during processing.

Nationwide Initiatives

Partnership groups have been formed to design and implement initiatives to tackle issues in the Foundry Industry. These groups are composed of trade associations, professional organisations, suppliers and vocational training organisations that represent the cross section of industries where risks from exposure to silica are present. Examples of interventions that these groups have undertaken include:

  • Research study involving occupational hygiene surveys at foundries known to use good working practices, establishing a baseline occupational exposure dataset, characterising good control practice, identifying practicable improvements and applying simple and effective control measures.
  • Foundry Industry Safety and Health Foundry Targets Initiative (SHIFT) forums for sharing information

By registering, information on these and other initiatives is available on the Occupational Disease Community site of the HSE. Specific guidance for employers on reducing the incidence of respiratory disease is available on HSE’s foundries web pages.

Welders

The fumes given off by welding and hot cutting processes is a varying mixture of airborne gases and very fine particles which if inhaled can cause a number of respiratory diseases. These diseases include asthma and cancer. The key activities that contribute towards exposure are arc, oxy-acetylene and resistance welding.

Nationwide Initiatives

Partnership groups have been formed to design and implement initiatives to tackle issues in the Welding Industry.The partnership group is comprised of trade associations, professional organisations, suppliers and vocational training organisations that represent a cross-section of industries where welding is present. Examples of interventions that these groups have undertaken include:

  • A vocational learning package for welders.
  • An independent website for the industry on the health effects from and control of exposures in welding.
  • Developing messages on risks and control measures for employers and employees.

Information on these and other initiatives is available by registering on the Occupational Disease Community site on the HSE website. Specific guidance for employers on reducing the incidence of respiratory disease is available on HSE’s welding web pages.

Quarry and Stoneworkers

Employees in this sector regularly undertake activities that can give rise to high and frequent exposures to Respirable crystalline silica (RCS). This can result in silicosis and Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Activities in the quarrying industry where exposures occur involve mining of high silica stone, sand pits, clay pits, blasting, breaking, crushing and screening. For stone workers, exposures result from work in fixed premises, work on high silica-content stone, cutting, grinding and chiselling.

Nationwide Initiatives

Partnership groups have been formed to design and implement initiatives to tackle issues in the Welding Industry.The partnership group is comprised of trade associations, professional organisations, suppliers and vocational training organisations that represent a cross-section of industries where welding is present. Examples of interventions that these groups have undertaken include:

  • A training tool to raise awareness amongst quarry operatives/maintenance personnel.
  • A vocational learning package for new-entrant stoneworkers.
  • Free events for stoneworkers to raise awareness of the ill-health effects and suitable controls.

By registering, information on these and other initiatives is available on the Occupational Disease Community site on the HSE website. Specific guidance for employers on reducing the incidence of respiratory disease is available on HSE’s quarry industry pages and stoneworkers pages.

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