Every year, 30,000 UK workers suffer from breathing or lung problems and 12,000 people die from long latency respiratory illnesses because of exposure to harmful substances at work. The correct respiratory protective equipment (RPE), correctly used and correctly fitted, can prevent the vast majority of these deaths. However, research has uncovered that up to 50 per cent of RPE users could still be breathing in harmful substances every single day while at work.
For businesses, the health and safety of employees is paramount, especially those operating in high-hazard industries. Not only do businesses have a duty of care to their employees, but they need to protect themselves from the financial consequences. Failure to place workforce wellbeing as a top priority could have serious ramifications, including fines of up to £1,200 and even imprisonment.
In an ideal situation, workers should not be exposed to any potentially dangerous substances, however, this is not always easy to achieve, and so respiratory protection should be provided. However, if half of the RPE provided to UK workers isn’t offering adequate protection, this is, instead, leaving employees exposed to hazardous material that could lead to long-term illness.
Reports of lung disease are rising
The latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) stats show the number of reported lung disease cases has been on an upward trend since 2014. In fact, the number of occupational asthma cases seen by chest physicians in 2017, was similar to the reports 10 years ago. These statistics are concerning and highlight the importance of ensuring workers fully understand how to use their RPE.
By acting now, businesses could protect their employees from future harm and their company from facing significant costs. They could save lives. When selecting RPE, as well as ensuring it is compliant and appropriate for the individual, there
are several other factors that need to be considered, including:
- Incorrect specification: In addition to making sure the RPE used is adequate to control the hazards, ensure it is suitable for the individual wearer, the tasks they are doing and the environment in which they are working. For example, it is recommended that continuous wear time for tight-fitting (unpowered) RPE is less than an hour, after which the wearer should take a break. Otherwise, the RPE can become uncomfortable to wear, leading to loosening or removal of the mask in the work area.
- Inadequate training: The correct RPE needs to be selected with the work environment and hazards in mind. Education and training play a large part in avoiding hazards and minimising exposure. Employers should ensure their employees are aware of the steps to ensure their own safety. Most RPE has been designed in a specific way with certain features to help increase protection, it’s therefore imperative employees know how to use these features when wearing RPE.
- Poor maintenance: Badly maintained equipment will fail to protect users. Employers must ensure all staff are properly taught how to use it, know how to clean it, how to maintain it to industry standards, how to wear it and when it should be replaced.
- Lack of regular fit testing: RPE needs to fit–tightly. All workers who wear tight fitting face pieces are legally required to undergo face fit testing by a competent person to ensure a proper fit and seal. This can be compromised by even modest weight loss or gain.
Knowing how to use RPE is just as important as wearing it in the first place, so it’s vital employers place just as much emphasis on training as they do on procurement.
Kevin Williams is respiratory services manager at Arco