Health and Safety Regulations · Occupational Health and Safety · Risk Assessment

Every Breath Counts

Do you take breathing for granted?

Most of us do I am sure – until something goes wrong that is.

When I worked as a physiotherapist in the NHS I treated many people with conditions such as lung cancer, chronic bronchitis and emphysema – helping them to breathe more easily and to get rid of the excess build-up on their lungs.

Many of these illnesses would probably have been due to (wholly or partly) the effects of tobacco smoking.

However, looking back with the knowledge I have now, I realise that some, perhaps many, of these illnesses could also have been caused or made worse by work activities.

This article looks at the common work-related respiratory diseases and their causes, with the aim of raising awareness about them and of the importance of controlling workers’ exposure to their causative agents.

Around 13,000 deaths occur in Britain alone each year from occupational lung disease and cancer - these are estimated to have been caused by past exposure, primarily to chemicals and dust at work.
Around 13,000 deaths occur in Britain alone each year from occupational lung disease and cancer – these are estimated to have been caused by past exposure, primarily to chemicals and dust at work.

What are work-related respiratory diseases?

Common work-related  respiratory conditions include:

  • Lung Cancer – from exposure to asbestos, silica dust, diesel exhaust gases etc
  • Mesothelioma – from exposure to asbestos
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) – from exposure to a range of gases, vapours and dust
  • Occupational asthma – caused by certain inhaled substances in the workplace (which can also make existing asthma worse)
  • Pneumoconiosis – a range of conditions where the lung structure becomes hard and scarred and interferes with oxygen getting into the bloodstream. These conditions are named after the substance which causes them eg. Asbestosis, silicosis etc.

Less common work-related conditions include:

  • Diffuse pleural thickening/pleural plaques – non-malignant effects of asbestos exposure
  • Allergic alveolitis – an allergic response in the lungs to certain dusts eg.
    • Farmers lung from exposure to mould dust from hay
    • Pigeon fanciers lung from exposure to bird faeces etc
    • Coffee workers’ lung from exposure to coffee bean dust
  • Allergic rhinitis – an allergic irritation of the nasal passages from exposure to dusts such as wood, paper and textile dust

What are the effects of work-related respiratory diseases?

Because the above conditions affect the lungs, they can have a severe effect on breathing and the body’s ability to get oxygen from the lungs. Most of the conditions listed are potentially fatal and recent statistics show that there are approximately 13,000 deaths a year in the UK from work-related respiratory disease.

For a list of the exact number of work-related deaths from these conditions, visit the HSE website.

Of course, the actual risk of disease or death from these conditions will increase further if the worker is a smoker as well as being at risk at work.

Act now

Many of the conditions listed above can be fatal, but most can take years to develop into a serious or life-threatening condition.

However, it is a legal requirement for employers to eliminate or control exposure to the causative agents through a proper process of risk assessment and risk control which might include, for instance, the wearing of PPE (personal protective equipment).

Sometimes the reasons for workplace controls and procedures are not obvious, especially where there are no immediate effects of not complying with them. But the nature of gases, vapours and dusts is that they can have a cumulative and chronic effect on your lungs. By the time the symptoms are serious it is often too late to do anything about it.

So – if you or your employees work with the agents described, make sure all the protective measures are in place to safeguard your health and that you adhere to them.

Don’t take your breathing for granted!

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