Breathing Space: Protecting workers from respiratory disease

Breathing Space: Protecting workers from respiratory disease

Every day millions of people are exposed to dust, dirt, fumes and dangerous substances while carrying out their jobs, resulting in thousands of deaths every year due to occupational lung disease. Campaigns to raise awareness of the dangers of respiratory diseases, such as those being run by British Safety Council and British Occupational Hygiene Society, are seeking to increase responsibility on employers to provide greater protection to workers.

Here we explore some of the work being done to bring about greater protection from work-related breathing problems and ill-health.

The business case for occupation health

Breathe Freely is the British Occupational Hygiene Society’s initiative to reduce occupational lung disease in the UK. Its aim is to significantly reduce debilitating ill-health and the estimated 13,000 deaths per year that occupational lung disease causes.

The initiative works to increase awareness of the problem of working unprotected in potentially dangerous conditions and encourage employers to protect their workforces by making the business case for doing so. The Breathe Freely campaign emphasises not only the statutory duty of care that employers have to their employees but the financial, social and reputational benefits of doing so.

The UK’s annual bill for sickness absence caused by occupational diseases is around £1.6 billion. This sum excludes musculoskeletal and mental health issues, and work-related cancers and lung disease caused by past workplace exposures. Lost time and sick pay are also not the only costs of sickness absence to employers; it can also mean an increased wage bill from other staff working overtime or having to bring in temporary labour. There could also recruitment costs, lower productivity, medical costs, legal costs and fines, depending on the circumstances.

Breathe Freely makes a strong case that good occupational health makes good business sense. Healthy workers are more engaged, motivated, and productive and stay in their jobs for longer. It is also a crucial element of Corporate Social Responsibility and an organisation’s reputation in its industry and community, which in turn play a role in winning new business and retaining customers.

Calls to expand reportable diseases list

Calls are being made for the list of occupational diseases required to be reported under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) to be expanded again. They come after changes in 2013 cut the list from 47 to just 6, resulting, it is claimed, to potentially life-threatening diseases going unreported.

The Health and Safety Executive has raised concerns that potentially life-threatening illnesses are no longer being brought to its attention, having been removed from the list. They include pneumoconiosis (e.g. silicosis), extrinsic allergic alveolitis, decompression illness, pulmonary barotrauma and poisoning due to certain chemical exposures.

“Potentially…workers are left at significant risk as a result of workplace exposures,” says the HSE’s report.

Outdoor workers’ exposure to pollution

According to a report from the Royal College of Physicians, 40,000 deaths a year are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution. The report’s findings prompted the British Safety Council to look into ways of protecting outdoor workers, considered to be a potentially vulnerable group due to the length of time they spend working outside.

The council has launched Canairy, an app designed for outdoor workers to monitor their exposure to health-harming particles. Using King’s College London’s mapping model, which monitors station data, weather stations and traffic data, and offers readings of pollutant concentrations, the app is designed to help employers and those working outdoors in London to make better choices to protect their health.

Diesel added to carcinogen list

The European Union has estimated that more than 12 million workers across Europe are exposed to diesel engine exhaust emissions (DEEE) due to their occupation. With cancer the leading cause of death among workers in the EU, this has prompted the designation of diesel as a carcinogen and the introduction of a limit for DEE exposure.

The first step towards protecting workers from inhaling substances, fumes and particles that could damage their health is to eradicate or limit their exposure. However, where that is not possible, appropriate Personal Protective Equipment and Respiratory Protective Equipment should be provided.

By working in partnership with an expert provider of PPE and RPE, you can be assured of providing your workers with protection from occupational lung disease and other respiratory issues.

Contego Safety Solutions offers a comprehensive range of workwear, safety clothing and equipment, PPE and accessories, and an unsurpassed level of customer service.

Find out more about Contego Safety Solutions’ extensive range by downloading the Contego Catalogue now, visiting our website or contacting our friendly team on 0800 122 3323 or

Published on 9 July 2019


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