By 2016, more than 12 000 deaths had been documented in the United Kingdom (UK), as a result of hazards in the workplace that resulted in respiratory diseases. WILLIAM GEORGE looks at some of the measures that have been put in place to solve the issue
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), health officials in the UK, identified a number of diseases that occurred as a result of workplace hazards for the periods 2013/14 and 2015/16.
In its 2016 report, the HSE mentions that the respiratory diseases that affect employees are latency diseases, meaning that they typically start to become apparent years after exposure. The current deaths therefore reflect the effect of past working conditions.
The HSE reported that each year there is an increase in the number of cases relating to breathing and lung diseases caused (or made worse) by workplace hazards. Exposure to fumes, chemicals, dust and other hazardous substances are the main causes of respiratory diseases in the workplace.
The main respiratory diseases which were documented:
Lung cancer – cancer caused by a range of exposure such as asbestos and silica;
Mesothelioma – a cancer of the lining of the lungs, which is commonly caused by asbestos;
Chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases – a long-term disease that affects the flow of air into the lungs, due to inflammation of the air passages and damage to the lung tissue;
Pneumoconiosis – scarring and inflammation of the lung tissue;
Occupational asthma – caused by agents that are present in the workplace;
Non-cancerous respiratory diseases – such as allergic alveolitis.
The search for solutions has caused concerns in other countries such as the United States of America, where the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the American Chemistry Council (ACC) recently signed a two-year agreement to raise awareness and protect employees exposed to chemicals in the polyurethane industry.
The OSHA recognised that diisocyantes could have adverse health effects. Isocyanates can cause irritation to the skin, lung problems and asthma.
The alliance called for the creation of web-based training programmes on the safe use of chemicals and the ways in which users are exposed to dangers. The programme is aimed at developing guidance on medical surveillance and clinical evaluation techniques for employers and employees who use chemicals.
Some of the documented cases of occupational respirational diseases in South Africa include tuberculosis (TB) and mesothelioma, which affect mainly former mine workers and their families.
According to a report entitled Occupational Disease Rates in South African Miners at Autopsy: surveillance report 2010, the rates of occupational respiratory diseases in South Africa have increased from 1975 to 2014, based on the cases recorded by the Pathology Automation database.
The study reveals that there is little existing research on lung diseases in sub-Saharan Africa where prevalence estimates vary and reflect the broad range of populations studied and inconsistent diagnostic criteria.
In 2008, South Africa banned asbestos mining and products containing asbestos, which was the main cause of respiratory disease. However, asbestos mining left a burden for people who are currently suffering from past work exposure, and as a result of old buildings that were made out of asbestos material.
According to The Mesothemolia Centre, as cases of mesothelioma in miners and their families are largely undocumented, it is difficult to assess the scope of harm caused by the mines. South Africa reports for some 200 cases of mesothelioma per year.
The HSE recently launched the Go Home Healthy campaign in the UK, which involves evidence-based interventions, communication and regulatory work in high-risk sectors such as construction, waste and recycling, and mining.
The overall campaign aims to encourage employers to provide a safe working area in order to protect the health of their employees. The HSE will also be hosting National Summit, to be held every 18 months, which aims to raise the profile of occupational lung disease.