Breathe more easily

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With 12,000 people thought to be dying from occupational lung disease every year in Britain, the British Occupational Hygiene Society is urging employers to adopt good exposure controls to protect workers from harmful airborne substances.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently published figures which confirm that, despite some improvement, deaths from respiratory disease still account for the majority of occupational-linked fatalities in Great Britain.

12,000 people are estimated to have died from occupational lung disease last year. That compares to 111 people who sadly died in workplace accidents. Indeed, some diseases (such as interstitial lung disease) are on the increase. Digging deeper into the statistics it is apparent that a significant proportion of this disease was attributed to work in construction.

Taking steps to protect the respiratory health of workers can be of short-term importance but have long-lasting effects. Photograph: iStock

That is why, five years on, the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), a scientific charity and the Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection, is redoubling its efforts to promote its Breathe Freely in Construction and Manufacturing campaigns.

It remains clear to BOHS that the preventive approach to harm, through good exposure control, which has always been the underlying principal of occupational hygiene, is the only effective way to tackle this huge problem.

The Society has worked with partners, including HSE, to consolidate its free advice and practical tips to make a difference on its Breathe Freely website. In fact, the success of the site has been such that it has been cloned by the national occupational hygiene societies of Australia and New Zealand and looks likely to be developed for the US market.

Over time, our suite of online materials has continued to grow, to include a construction manager’s toolkit, site checklists, trade-specific fact sheets and good practice case studies.

Digging deeper into the statistics it is apparent that a significant proportion of respiratory diseases was attributed to work in construction.

Covid-19 has proved a challenging time for all industries, with much of the focus being on respiratory health protection of a different kind to the conventional respiratory health risks posed by exposure at work to harmful substances such as dusts, fumes and vapours.

Preventing the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace is a broader public health issue, with logistical implications that cannot be ignored. However, this has undoubtedly put a strain on employer resources, making the challenge of ensuring everyone in the workplace understands their part in respiratory health protection even more difficult.

To help deal with these challenges, the Society suggests that there are four things that can both save money and save lives:

Think strategically

Often ‘Safety and Health’ is something on a risk report and managed by an individual as an operational issue. A ‘safety first’ approach to operational issues is right of course, but a healthy workplace, especially in these times, can be critical to profitability and viability.

Using approaches such as BOHS’s free Health in Industry Management Standard (HI Standard) can provide a framework for this. It is split into six clear sections and provides a straightforward self-assessment tool to allow organisations identify strengths and weaknesses in their own systems – and so target their resource more effectively to improve their management of occupational hygiene.

It has proven success in the construction industry, but is universally applicable to physical health risks across all industry sectors. It can be found at: bit.ly/3lO0SGC

Make workplace health everybody’s business

Having everyone able to recognise health risks in the workplace and take even very simple steps to avoid them can be transformative, and the rapid establishment of effective Covid-19 measures in the workplace has proved this.

Simple messages that everyone knows and understands in relation to key risks in a particular workplace can make the difference. There are tools that are available to help this process, including BOHS’s Certificate in Controlling Health Risks in Construction (CCHRC), a training course aimed
at people working at site supervisor level in construction.

The Society can provide the materials and support to enable your own team to deliver this course or signpost you to someone else who can. For more details see: bit.ly/3pJRh6c

BOHS is also developing free materials for ‘toolbox talks’ to ensure that every employee can understand the health risks they face.

Make small choices to achieve big differences

Materials and processes come with different health risks and different control costs. It is important to be aware that procurement decisions can impact costs further down the line in relation to lost time through ill health, regulatory enforcement, or a need to employ and maintain more complex control measures.

It is therefore worthwhile thinking carefully in advance about the full health costs of a procurement decision or a process design. For example, the International Agency for Research recently reclassified the carcinogenic potential of welding fumes. The free BOHS Welding Fume Control Selector Tool can help you make an educated and life-saving choice. It can be found at: bit.ly/3nFEIH4

Get the right advice

An area where businesses are increasingly becoming financially vulnerable is in workplace health monitoring.

With the diminishing cost of technology, more and more individuals are offering services to business that claim to provide scientific assurances of a healthy workplace environment.

However, it is not uncommon that they lack the training, expertise or experience to offer worthwhile advice or appropriate products. Some solutions are cheap, some very expensive, but there are numerous examples of businesses buying worthless reports and investing in inappropriate technology in a bid to protect workers from exposure to harmful substances.

When it comes to obtaining support to manage physical health risks, employers tend to focus on the cost of the support, rather than the value which it adds to their business. Procurement decisions are often based on price alone and, in common with most other walks of life, you generally get what you pay for in this area.

BOHS has worked with HSE to put together a ‘Buyer’s Guide’ to help businesses make the right decisions when seeking to hire an occupational hygienist to help them to meet their legal duties to protect workers from workplace health risks, such as respiratory hazards. It can be found at: bit.ly/3kJZPq4

Other schemes, such as the Occupational Health and Safety Consultants Register can also be of assistance – see: www.oshcr.org


At a time when workforce resilience is becoming a critical issue, taking some straightforward steps to ensure the respiratory health of workers can be of short-term importance but have long-lasting effects.

For the Breathe Freely campaign see: www.breathefreely.org.uk

Chris Keen, CMFOH is Board member of BOHS and Co-Chair of the Breathe Freely in Construction Campaign



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