Covid-19 has thrown the issue of workplace health into the spotlight. Exposure controls such as social distancing, masks and ventilation are hot topics. However, control of other workplace health risks has long been the Cinderella to accident prevention.
The Health and Safety Executive estimates that annually 13,000 workers die from work-related (non-Covid) disease across all sectors in Great Britain. The total figure for accident fatalities is around 110-150 each year. So 99% health and 1% safety.
Of that total, construction alone accounts for 3,500 occupational cancer deaths, plus 5,500 new cases of occupational cancer each year. At any one time there are some 81,000 construction workers with work-related ill-health .
According the Centre for Disease Control in the USA, an epidemic refers to an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of an infectious disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area. And a pandemic refers an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people.
A key difference with work-related diseases is that generally they’re non-communicable i.e. you develop them through exposure to hazardous substances/processes and they’re not transmissible person-to-person. Strictly speaking epidemic and pandemic relate to infectious diseases. But, indulge me for a moment and assume we can apply them to non-communicable diseases as well.
Another difference to note is that work-related diseases generally have no cure. There’s no vaccine for silicosis or noise induced hearing loss.
The global picture for work-related fatalities is a little different to the UK with an estimated 2.3M disease deaths each year and 0.3M accident deaths (87% health and 13% safety). Although if we looked only at industrialised countries it would be similar proportions to the UK.
By any measure of scale this is a pandemic.
Firstly, work-related diseases develop slowly, usually over a number of years and sometimes over a number of decades. This means that workers suffering these conditions retire early and die at home or in hospital or care homes. They are no longer ‘on the books’ of the employer who exposed them. That’s rather less visible than a workplace accident fatality isn’t it?
In fact HSE estimates that of the £16.2Bn cost of all work related injury and ill health, 66% is due to ill-health (and that only covers new cases of disease each year, not the burden due to past-exposure)1. Of that £16.2Bn employers pick up about 20%, government pays about 22% and individuals and families account for the remaining 56%. Not quite ‘risk-creator pays’ is it?
Secondly, workplace health hazards often go unrecognised and/or unobserved. Most people would probably recognise the risk of a fall from height quite easily, but do they appreciate the serious risks to lung health of dusts, fumes, fibres and vapours? We’ve found that in construction there is certainly an awareness and understanding gap to bridge when it comes to health hazards.
It is Preventable
All of this burden of ill-health, disease and death is preventable. And preventing it doesn’t mean ‘stopping the job’. That’s where the scientific discipline of occupational hygiene comes in. Hygienists are the professionals who know how to accurately assess health risks and effectively control them to ensure that your people and your business are protected to do what they do best.
 HSE (November 2020). Summary statistics for Great Britain 2020. © Crown copyright 2020
 HSE (November 2020). Occupational Cancer statistics in Great Britain 2020. © Crown copyright 2020
 Takala, Jukka & Hämäläinen, Päivi & Saarela, Kaija & Loke, Yoke & Manickam, Kathiresan & Tan, Wee & Heng, Peggy & Tjong, Caleb & Lim, Guan & Lim, Samuel Y. E. & Gan, Siok Lin. (2013). Global Estimates of the Burden of Injury and Illness at Work in 2012. Journal of occupational and environmental hygiene. 11. 10.1080/15459624.2013.863131.