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World Day for Safety and Health at Work on 28 April

Heetasha Khosla discusses how World Day for Safety and Health at Work serves as a reminder that we must keep fighting to reduce the number of deaths caused by dust diseases

Posted on 26 April 2019

World Day for Safety and Health at Work is an international campaign which marks the beginning of worldwide events and activities based on safety, health and the future of work.

Wherever you work, in heavy industry, in a factory, office or call centre, your employer has a duty of care to you and must protect you from health risks in the workplace.  This includes preventing exposure to dangerous substances or unsafe working conditions. Notwithstanding this, every year work related diseases claim 2.4 million lives worldwide. The risk of occupational disease has become the most prevalent danger faced by employees accounting for 1.7 million annual work-related deaths, outpacing fatal accidents by four to one.

The most common workplace illnesses are cancers caused by exposure to hazardous substances including respiratory diseases. Looking more specifically at occupational respiratory disease statistics in GB, it is estimated that there are around 12,000 deaths and 20,000 new cases of breathing and lung problems each year.

In many industrialised countries, where the number of deaths from work-related incidents has been falling, deaths from occupational disease, notably asbestos, is on the rise. Asbestos alone is responsible for 100,000 deaths globally every year.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was so popular because of its fire and heat resistant properties. It was used extensively until around the 1970s when its use declined. When materials that contain asbestos are damaged or disturbed, fibres are released and if inhaled, can cause fatal diseases including mesothelioma, lung cancer, diffuse pleural thickening and asbestosis.

The latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report highlights that there are over 5,000 asbestos related disease deaths per year, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis in GB.

Asbestos - A Disease of the Past?

The harmful effects of asbestos have been known for decades, however it was not until as late as 1999 that chrysotile (white) was finally banned in the UK. Blue (crocidolite) and brown (amosite) asbestos were banned in 1985. The 1999 ban made the manufacture and supply of asbestos products illegal in the UK. 

While many current cases of asbestos related diseases will tend to reflect the effects of past working conditions, sadly, it is not a disease of the past.

As asbestos was so widely used, it remains present in many homes, schools and buildings built or refurbished before the year 2000. 

The duty to manage asbestos is a legal requirement under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (Regulation 4) and applies to owners and occupiers of commercial premises.  However there are still numerous cases that are prosecuted by the HSE today and asbestos exposure remains an ongoing public health threat for future generations.

It is a saddening injustice to know that annual deaths have increased over the last 50 years and are expected to continue for the rest of the decade before declining. More needs to be done to promote good practice in the handling of asbestos and where it is found to be present, or is presumed to be present; it must be managed appropriately to reduce the devastating impact on human health.

Silicosis – What More Can Be Done?

As is the case with asbestos, the health risks posed by exposure to silica dust have been well documented for over a century.

Silica, a naturally occurring substance found in stones, rocks, clay and sand as well as products such as bricks and tiles is a causative agent that is still present in workplaces today. When inhaled in large quantities, it can cause silicosis, an irreversible lung condition as well as other serious respiratory conditions.

Figures produced by the HSE indicate there have been between 10 and 20 annual deaths from silicosis over the last 10 years.  It is concerning to note that such sources are likely to substantially underestimate the annual incidence of silicosis, with the actual number of lung cancer cases attributable to past exposure to silica dust estimated to be nearing 800 deaths per year.

While it may therefore appear that the total number of silica cases is small in comparison to asbestos, it seems the full impact of exposure to silica dust is not yet known and the potential pool of those affected could be substantial.

The current laws provide some protection and the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) specifies a workplace exposure limit of 0.1mg/m³ averaged over eight hours. Additionally, employers are obliged to protect their workers by using alternative processes and less hazardous materials.  Where exposure cannot be avoided, steps must be taken to control the risk through measures such as effective ventilation and protective equipment.

Following improved health and safety protection in GB, the number of people developing silicosis has reduced. However the statistics above indicate that it is not happening fast enough and a tougher approach to reduce the risk of silicosis is needed.  

World Day for Safety and Health at Work reminds us that the importance of proper controls of workplace exposures cannot be overstated and it is the only way to prevent these debilitating diseases. It is hoped that one day World Safety Day will become a thing of the past.