Shine a light on: work-related lung disease

Coinciding with the Health and Safety Executive’s ‘Go Home Healthy Campaign’, November was Lung Cancer Awareness Month. To support both initiatives and shine a light on work-related lung disease, we have collaborated with the Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center for this blog.

Latest figures from the HSE have recently been published, as we saw in our infographic – Health & Safety at Work 2016/2017, which reports that 12,000 deaths each year are caused by work-related lung disease. This is down from 13,000 in last year’s statistics. Mesothelioma deaths are on the rise from 2515 in 2014 to 2542 in 2015, and a similar number of lung cancer deaths occurred each year linked to past exposures to asbestos. Though a lot of work has been done to support the reduction in work-related lung disease, including asbestos being banned from buildings in 2000, unfortunately there is little that can be done about legacy issues. It is expected that these numbers will continue to rise for a number of years to come, before a decline. What can be done is to prevent future exposure and related illnesses/deaths occurring.

Workers are especially susceptible to airborne contaminants that can compromise their health because of the long hours spent working with materials that contain toxins along with other contributing factors. They may also passively expose others if the proper procedures for cleaning their clothes (where particles may settle) are not practiced. To reduce this risk, it is important not only to raise employees’ awareness of these dangers, but also to stress to employers that it’s their responsibility to protect their workers. As part of their Go Home Healthy campaign, the HSE have produced a series of informative videos on various subjects within work-related lung disease.

While there are numerous workplace contaminants, some are more prominent than others because of their existence across several industries. Here are a few things to look out for:

What to look for on the job

Firsthand exposure:

  • Asbestos – When a material is resistant to fire, does not evaporate in the air, or dissolve in water, imagine the harm it can cause internally. Asbestos can be found in any building built before the year 2000 and, as mentioned above, is the cause of thousands of deaths each year. Because of their shape, if asbestos fibres enter the body they can easily cling to tissues in the lining of the lung, causing chronic inflammation and scar tissue that can lead to mesothelioma. This often occurs many years after the exposure. Some high-risk jobs that could work with asbestos products and materials are construction workers, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, and firefighters.
  • DustPneumoconiosis or “black lung” occurs when particles of dust are retained in the lungs and collect and build up over time. While asbestosis is part of this grouping of lung diseases, other cases come from coal, silica or another unspecified source. Similar to mesothelioma, these diseases typically onset after decades from when a worker was initially exposed, with the exception of silicosis, which can rapidly progress if the worker had high levels of exposure.
  • Chemical fumes – Although only a small percentage of pneumonia is caused by chemicals, chemical pneumonia can be life-threatening if the conditions are poor enough. Inflammation occurs when a person inhales chemical fumes that can comes from sources such as chlorine gas, noxious fumes from pesticides, or smoke from a fire. Caretaking and cleaning staff are particularly at risk because of their use of industrial strength cleaning supplies within their scope of work.

Passive exposure:

  • Asbestos fibres – As mentioned previously, asbestos is not an easy material to get rid of. It is incredibly durable and as the individual fibers are invisible to the naked eye, they are easy to transport. Aside from the precautions employees need to take to avoid inhaling the fibres themselves, attention needs to be brought to the environment they are working in and if the fibres are contained. If they are not, they can attach themselves to the worker’s clothing and remain there until they are released again either naturally by wind or manually through laundering or transferring to another person. When this happens, secondhand exposure can occur, which was the case of one 12-year survivor: Heather Von St. James. Heather was diagnosed with mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos through her father’s work jacket when she was a child.
  • Cigarette smoke – One of the biggest and well-known culprits of lung disease and cancer is tobacco. Figures from the NHS show that smoking prevalence in the UK has dropped in adults aged 18 or over from 19.9% in 2010 to 15.5% in 2016 yet still it causes tens of thousands of deaths per year and can aid in increasing the risk of developing other respiratory illnesses such asthma. Stricter regulations on tobacco use and aid in helping workers quit and lead a healthier lifestyle can help cut down the amount of secondhand smoke to nonsmokers.

How to keep your employees safe on the job

According to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, it is the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of all colleagues whilst at work, so far as is reasonably practicable. In order to this you need to make sure of the following:

  • Health & Safety policy – if you employee 5 people or over it is a legal requirement to have a written Health & Safety Management System in place this needs to include procedures and safe methods for work activities. There’s more on this in our blog Handy tips to manage Health & Safety.
  • Risk Assessments – as we discussed in The importance of Risk Assessments, a risk assessment is a legal requirement that is vital in ensuring a safe and healthy work environment. Part of a risk assessment is the consideration of possible causes of harm, especially prevalent in working environments where the exposures above are present.
  • Duty to manage asbestos – anyone who manages non-domestic premises have the duty to manage asbestos in order to protect workers or anyone who uses the premises from the risk to ill health that exposure to asbestos causes. There are many requirements to ensure this as outlined by the HSE. It is important to remember though that duty to manage is all about putting in place the practical steps necessary to protect workers and others, not removing all asbestos.
  • Asbestos surveys – fall under duty to manage asbestos and should be carried out by a competent surveyor.
  • COSHH – under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002, any substances deemed hazardous to health need a specific risk assessment in place prior to use.
  • PPE – if a risk assessment identifies a requirement for Personal protective equipment (PPE) then an assessment must be carried out to ensure that the PPE to be provided is suitable. It is also the employers’ responsibility to provide suitable PPE.
  • Dust and fume removal – the HSE has produced a comprehensive guide for employers of using local exhaust ventilation.
  • Training – your employees need to be trained in Health & Safety and all relevant safety systems to a level that is commensurate with their job role. The consequences of overlooking this can be devastating as seen in Alton Towers: The importance of training.

How to keep yourself safe on the job

Whilst it is the responsibility of the employer to ensure you have safe working conditions, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself too:

  • Beware Asbestos app – Any tradesman undertaking work should ask to see the asbestos register/survey first to check if refurbishment or demolition work are taking place. The HSE developed app is also available for tradespeople unsure of asbestos within the building they are working in.
  • PPE/RPEPersonal protective equipment (PPE) will protect you from Health & Safety risks at work. Respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is designed to protect workers whose activity may result in harmful substances contaminating the air in the form of dust, mist, gas or fumes. Once your employer has been through the hierarchy of control, if they find PPE is still needed they will provide this and you must wear it!
  • Stop smoking – not only will this improve your own lung health, you will also protect those around you from the effects of passive smoking
  • Know and follow your workplace safety precautions – safety precautions exist for a reason, make it your mission to read your Health & Safety documentation and ensure you adhere to it
  • Health surveillance – if you are exposed to chemicals and dust it is likely you will be asked to carry out health surveillance, checking yourself for signs or symptoms regularly. Your employer will provide training under COSHH regulations if your work involves you being exposed to certain substances.
  • Speak up if conditions are not right – as Terry, a former stone mason who is suffering from work-related silicosis urges you to do in a moving video from the HSE.

Go Home Healthy

Through their campaign, the HSE is working to reduce work-related lung disease using communication, partnerships including establishing a Healthy Lung Partnership, regulatory work in the highest-risk sectors and evidence-based interventions. The reduction of work-related lung disease is just one of the objectives of the campaign, we will be covering the others in the coming weeks.

Do you need some extra support in keeping your employees safe and healthy in their working environment? As the largest employer of Environmental Health Practitioners in the country, Shield Safety is on hand to support you with all areas of managing Health & Safety. Get in touch today on 0203 740 3744 or email to find out more.

The information contained in this blog article has been created for marketing purposes and is not official guidance and should not be used as a substitute for official Food Safety, Fire Safety and Health & Safety advice. Shield Safety take no responsibility if the information in the blog article is used to form part of a safety management system or used to form part of any legal or regulatory compliance for your business. For official guidance and to engage with Shield Safety services please do call our team on 020 3740 3744 or email

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