It’s devastating to be told that you or your loved one have a life altering, or life ending disease. Finding out this disease was caused by preventable workplace health and safety issues can be even more of a blow. Although Britain has some of the lowest instances of workplace illnesses, 1.1 million working people suffered from a work related illness in 2011/2012 and there were an estimated 12,000 deaths caused by past exposure to harmful substances at work.
Cases of occupational diseases are dropping as health and safety policy improves, but many people who were working with harmful substances in the past are starting to see the effects now. This is called a ‘latency’ period, a disease can take up to 30 years after the exposure period to develop.
While these workers have had their life affected or shortened, their employers or suppliers may have made great profit. The bulk of the human and financial cost of workplace illnesses falls on the individual.
The primary areas of focus
There is a lot being done by public, private and third sector businesses to prevent occupational disease. There are two priority areas of focus: respiratory disease and cancer.
Occupational cancer is currently responsible for around 8,000 deaths and a further 14,000 cancer registrations annually. Here are some high risk areas;
Asbestos is banned, but there is still a risk of people becoming exposed to it. Any building built before 2000 may still contain it. Asbestos can cause mesothelioma, asbestosis, pleural thickening and more common types of cancers such as lung and stomach.
Painters and decorators can be exposed to a wide range of chemicals and solvents, they may also be working with asbestos or silica that are present in old buildings. Data from the HSE cancer burden study shows that about 334 painters get bladder or lung cancer each year.
Silica is a natural substance found in rocks, concrete, bricks, sand or clay. It is in itself harmless, but when construction workers are sanding, or cutting these substances, a dust is produced which may be fine enough to be breathed deep into the lungs. People who have significant exposure to silica can be at risk of silicosis or lung cancer.
This chemical is used in the dry cleaning industry, although nowadays dry cleaners have much safer equipment that limits exposure. Exposure to tetrachloroethylene is linked to cervical, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and oesophageal cancers, although the link is unclear.
Welding produces fumes which contain a mixture of gasses, salts and metals. Some parts of the fume have WELs (workplace exposure limits) which must be adhered to.
Work related respiratory disease covers a large range of diseases, including existing problems that have been made worse by working conditions. The most common of these diseases are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma and silicosis. There are currently 12,000 deaths from occupational respiratory disease each year. Here are some high risk areas;
Working in agriculture can expose you to high levels of dust and microorganisms from grain, bedding or straw. This can result in respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis.
Bakers are exposed to flour dust and enzyme improvers. This can leave them vulnerable to occupational asthma.
Construction work can involve a lot of dust, especially when doing things like demolishing structures or cutting stone. Construction workers have high levels of respiratory problems. Quarry and stone workers are also at risk for similar reasons. Prevalent conditions are silicosis, COPD and asthma.
Vehicle paint spraying
Workers who work with paint spraying in vehicle manufacture or repair can suffer from occupational asthma from exposure to 2-pack (2k) Isocyanate paints.
If you are worried about occupational disease and you’d like to know more, take a look at our information about industrial diseases or you can call 0800 163 622 for free, specialist advice. We have many years of experience in helping people who have been affected by industrial disease fight for justice, even if their loved one has passed away from their illness.
If you’re an employer or worker worried about regulation and want to know what steps are being taken to prevent occupational illness, you can visit the Health and Safety Executive website.