With 99% of work-related deaths attributable to disease rather than accidents, employers should identify and control health hazards at early stages.
Occupational hygiene is the scientific discipline which is all about protecting the health of people at work, no matter what sort of work they do. It involves the identification of hazards and most importantly, their control, to minimise the risks to worker health, as a result of exposures. To achieve this, occupational hygiene often employs science and engineering principles. Occupational hygienists can be found in a wide variety of workplaces and this is as a result of the extensive range of health risks which can arise at work. These risks, if not controlled, can result in serious illness and even death.
The risks which occupational hygienists are interested in often involve chemical hazards (such as toxic substances, dust and fibres, fumes and mists), physical hazards (like noise and vibration, radiation, lasers, or thermal stress) or biological hazards, for example, bacteria like legionella or viruses such as hepatitis or ebola.
Risks may also be related to ergonomic considerations such as manual handling or psychosocial factors such as stress. Good occupational hygiene has revolutionised worker health in certain areas. For example, it is possible today to be a healthy miner and also understand the risks of working with or near asbestos. Similarly, occupational hygienists know how silicosis among pottery workers can be prevented.
However, large numbers of people are still employed in high-risk sectors. Construction workers continue to be exposed to harmful dusts such as respirable crystalline silica. Workers in bakeries continue to suffer from asthma as a result of exposure to flour dust and in retail, workers are still at risk from musculoskeletal problems. The need for occupational hygiene is as great today as it ever has been since the types of hazards are constantly changing.
The big issues
The latest figures show that 13,000 people a year die from work-related ill health. That means the 133 workers killed at work during 2013/14 as a result of accidents in the workplace represent only 1% of the total deaths caused by work. In other words, 99% of occupational mortality is attributable to disease.
This isn’t just a problem of past exposures. The number of new cases of self-reported work-related ill health had been falling in recent years, but has now increased to 535,000 per year and there are 2 million people suffering from an illness they believed was caused or made worse by their current or past work.
Cancer is a particular challenge in the field of worker health. It is estimated that one in 20 cases of cancer are attributed to work-related causes. There are 8,000 deaths and 13,500 new cases of occupational cancer per year. Worse still, it is estimated that, in the absence of action, annual deaths from preventable occupational cancers in 2060 will have risen by 5,000 more than the current level of 8,000.
The good news is that occupational hygiene solutions are hugely cost effective. Cost-benefit analysis demonstrated the advantages of employing occupational hygiene experts at the 2012 Olympic Park and village project far outweighed the cost. The net benefits were estimated to be around £7m.
The discipline and practice of occupational hygiene is one of the longest standing within the occupational health arena and, as such, was recognised as pivotal by Lord Robens in his 1972 report which led to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. In the report, he defined occupational health as comprising two main elements: occupational medicine and occupational hygiene, and concluded that, “Occupational health is very much a multi-disciplinary subject requiring the combined knowledge and skills of doctors, chemists, engineers, nurses and others.”
It has been said that occupational health has two primary facets – prevention and cure. Occupational hygiene is firmly within the preventative side of the discipline, with protection of worker health by means of controlling exposure to risks as its primary focus. On the curative side, we find occupational doctors and nurses practising occupational medicine, carrying out medical checks and helping workers who are ill. On the same side, we find HR personnel, with the involvement of medical specialists, helping people return to work after sickness absence. Increasingly, we also see the wellbeing of workers being considered by HR, with exercise, diet and nutrition programmes.
When people hear the term occupational hygiene, they sometimes mistakenly think the profession is about keeping workplaces hygienic and clean. In fact, it is about the identification and control of hazards to minimise the risks to worker health. That is something all workplaces should aim for.
Steve Perkins is chief executive of British Occupational Hygiene Society
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