Last reviewed 19 October 2017

As a new campaign is launched aiming to encourage employers to tackle work-related ill health, a survey of the UK’s business leaders reveals that many feel not enough is being done to tackle the issue. Yet, according to the EU, the economic advantages of effective occupational safety and health have never been more apparent. Dr Lisa Bushby investigates.

The survey

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has completed a consultation of 300 major business leaders for their views on work-related ill health. The survey found more than two-fifths of respondents reported a rise in cases of long-term ill health and the majority (80%) stated that tackling this growing problem is a priority within their organisation.

The findings come as evidence from a major project on the costs and benefits of occupational safety and health suggest the issue should become more of a priority for all stakeholders.

The project was carried out by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH), the WSH Institute in Singapore, the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA). It estimates that work-related accidents and illnesses cost the EU at least €476 billion every year with the cost of work-related cancers alone amounting to €119.5 billion.

The benefits of effective occupational safety and health could not be clearer. A healthy and safe work environment is not only desirable from the workers’ perspective, but also contributes considerably to labour productivity and promotes economic growth. Tackling instances of work-related ill health head-on increases the competitiveness and productivity of organisations by reducing costs resulting from accidents at work and work-related health problems and by enhancing worker motivation. In addition, a decrease in accidents and work-related health problems relieves pressure on public and private social protection, insurance and pension systems.

The main factors responsible for almost 80% of fatalities in work-related accidents and illnesses were identified by the project as cancers, circulatory diseases and fatal work-related accidents.

The findings

The findings have been presented at the XXI World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, held in Singapore on 3–6 September where a new data visualisation tool, developed as part of the project, was also unveiled. It shows the global costs of work-related illnesses and accidents in an accessible way. Key results are presented as infographics and the tool also provides a glossary of frequently used terms and a guide to the methods used.

Meanwhile, the HSE has launched its latest national campaign — Go Home Healthy. The campaign aims to reduce cases of work-related ill health by shining a light on the causes and encouraging employers to do the right thing to protect their workers’ health. For example, in terms of lung diseases, the campaign website, says “breathing in dust, gases, vapours and fumes at work can cause life-changing lung disease or make existing conditions worse. Do the right thing and protect your workers from work-related lung disease.”

Lung disease

Various institutions are making available more resources on the causes of work-related ill health. Taking occupational lung disease as an example, this year alone has seen the publication of a plethora of resources that health and safety managers can access for further information on the issue.

  • The HSE has published a research report linking lung disease to the occupational exposure to grain dust. Grain dust includes dust from wheat, oats, barley rye and corn. It can contain plant proteins and chemicals, soil particles, microorganisms and their toxins, small invertebrates and low levels of farming chemicals. The report concludes that the damaging effects of grain dust on the respiratory tract are accumulative and occur at high concentrations of exposure. Acute responses also occur and include declines in lung function as well as irritation and inflammation of the airways. There is less evidence that grain dust exposure causes occupational asthma despite the dusts containing allergens. This may be due to a healthy worker effect with those already having, or developing, asthma leaving employment earlier than others. There is stronger evidence that the long-term effects of exposure include emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and interstitial fibrosis of the lung. The risk of developing extrinsic allergic alveolitis has reduced through preventing damp conditions in stored grain.

  • The European Centre for Ecotoxicity and Toxicology of Chemicals has published a new document to help use and improve on the clinical information related to chemical respiratory allergies. A variety of natural (eg moulds, coffee or flour dusts, mites) and man-made materials (glues, paints, welding fumes) can cause allergic sensitisation of the respiratory tract in susceptible individuals. However, the mechanisms involved in the development of the allergy are currently not fully understood and no validated models exist for the identification of chemical respiratory allergens. A workshop was thus held to identify areas for improvements in the identification, classification and risk characterisation of respiratory sensitisers, with its outcomes presented in the report. Problems identified include the fact that, in contrast to the situation for skin sensitisation and skin irritation, where these are clearly distinguished for the purposes of classification and labelling, no similar distinction is drawn between sensitisation of the respiratory tract and respiratory irritation.

  • A new phase of the Breathe Freely initiative has been launched to specifically address lung disease in manufacturing with controls to protect the respiratory health of welders. This phase of the British Occupational Hygiene Society campaign provides the following resources available through breathefreely.org.uk.

    • Welder task sheets showing the controls that need to be in place to protect welders.

    • A welding fume slidepack and information sheet for health and safety managers to use when communicating with employees.

    • Guidance materials on topics such as local exhaust ventilation, respiratory protective equipment and the hierarchy of control — over time, a bank of good practice case studies highlighting the benefits of having the right controls in place will also be made available.

    • External links, including the BOHS Directory of Occupational Hygiene Services, a list of UK companies able to provide qualified and experienced occupational hygienists, and specialist occupational hygiene support services.

  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer has prepared monographs evaluating the carcinogenicity of a range of chemicals and materials and are being made available through its website.

Of course, these resources should not come at the expense of carrying out risk assessments and putting in place control measures to manage any risk. Rather, as the HSE’s chair, Martin Temple says, it is about: “driving behavioural change in workplaces so we all can go home healthy. There is a moral, legal, and business case for employers to do the right thing by their workers. The importance of more joined-up thinking across industries when it comes to tackling work-related ill health cannot be overstated.”

The HSE’s own figures show that work-related ill health is costing the UK economy more than £9bn with 26 million working days being lost.

An International Comparison of the Cost of Work-related Accidents and Illnesses is available from the EU-OSHA website. More information on the Go Home Healthy campaign is available from the HSE website.