Respiratory Diseases


Harmful substances

Conduct a risk assessment

Change processes or materials if possible

Control exposure levels

Provide respiratory protective equipment

Choosing the right Respiratory Protective Equipment

Fitting Respiratory Protective Equipment properly to the user

Communicate the dangers

Maintaining Respiratory Protective Equipment

Communicate the dangers

Train people in how to use the equipment

This message must be communicated to employees

Review, maintain records, conduct ongoing risk assessments

In summary

Every year, hundreds of thousands of workers across the globe are made ill by hazardous substances including contracting lung diseases such as asthma and cancer.  These diseases cost millions of pounds each year and can include compensation to the individual and their family, for the loss to industry to replace the worker and to society in disabled allowances and medicines.

Unlike many hazards, the many of the hazards and risks associated with chemicals in the workplace cannot be seen and are often not recognised until the damage to an individual (or individuals) has been done. The respiratory system is a target organ for many hazardous substances.  Unlike head or foot injuries, respiratory injuries may not be readily apparent.  It may take several years or may not be until workers retire before an individual displays symptoms as a result of exposure to hazards in an atmosphere.

Chemicals in the workplace can create pollution from tiny particles in the air that can enter the respiratory system in the form of, mists, vapours, fumes, dust or fibres that cannot be seen.

Harmful substances

There are a high volume of hazards present in the workplace that are harmful to the respiratory system.  Dusty or fume-laden air can cause lung diseases for example for welders, quarry workers or woodworkers.  Metalworking fluids can grow bacteria and fungi, which can cause dermatitis and asthma.  The agriculture and horticulture industries have risks associated with harvesting, flowers, bulbs, fruit and vegetables.  The catering industry has chemicals around hot oils and cleaning products and Benzene in crude oil can cause leukaemia.

Other hazards can come from vapours (solvents, detergents, paints, adhesives), gases (chlorine, carbon monoxide) and oxygen deficient atmospheres.

In addition to the fumes are the hazards associated with liquid chemicals and skin damage, for example when a dangerous acid is spilt onto an open area of the body.

The risks can result both from immediate short-term health issues to fatalities, such as difficulty in breathing from fumes and dusts, through to long-term life threatening risks, for example cancer caused by breathing asbestos fibres.

Inhalation also provides the quickest and most direct path of entry for hazardous materials into the body. Exposure to respiratory hazards may cause various health effects such as damage to the respiratory system, permanent damage to other target organs due to inhaled substances making their way to such organs, acute and chronic illnesses, other disabilities, or even death.

In the UK, there were 2,997 instances of work related respiratory illness in 2006/7 and it is now a requirement that all persons working with, for example lead or asbestos are fit-tested. In 2005, 373 death certificates included work related asbestosis as the cause or underlying cause of death.

It is imperative that a business conducts a suitable and sufficient risk assessment to identify if there are any hazards around respiratory issues and implements a plan to minimise the risks for people carrying out the activities and anyone who may be affected by the workplace activities.  Thereby the risk to occupational related lung disease and other adverse health affects will be reduced.  It is not simply about issuing Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) it is about so much more.

Outlined below is a process to help in dealing with respiratory hazards and controlling the exposure to work related respiratory illness:

  1. Conduct a risk assessment
  2. Change processes or materials if possible
  3. Control exposure levels using engineering controls
  4. Choose the right respiratory protective equipment
  5. Provide respiratory protective equipment that not only meets the appropriate standards, but also fits the user
  6. Fit RPE properly to the user
  7. Maintain your RPE equipment
  8. Communicate the dangers
  9. Train people in how to use the equipment

10. Review, maintain records, conduct ongoing risk assessments

Conduct a risk assessment

As with dealing with other hazards in the workplace, it is imperative to conduct a formal risk assessment.  A risk assessment is not merely a paper exercise; it is taking sensible steps to prevent ill health.  Identify and evaluate the potential respiratory hazards to people at work and people affected by workplace activities.

There is a need to assess:

  • Workplace conditions that people operate in such as a very hot, cluttered, busy environment.  How well is the area ventilated with natural air?
  • What form is the hazard, for example gas, lack of oxygen, dust, vapour or mist.
  • Degree of exposure to respiratory hazards considering the levels with and without any protective equipment
  • What are the rules and recommendations of dealing with specific chemical substances?  What is the permissible exposure limit to a particular airborne substance?  Is this being adhered to?  Can the exposure time be reduced?
  • What is the worst-case scenario?  How would an emergency situation impact on the wider workforce and on the local community?
  • What is the protection provided, is it being worn properly, is it cleaned correctly?  Is it really protecting the worker? Is it correctly maintained?
  • Is there sufficient communication to warn about the dangers and the hazards?

Ill health caused by the various substances used at work is preventable.  It is important to understand the dangerous properties of each substance.  They may be flammable, for example solvent-based products.  Other products will give off vapour or clouds of dust, which cannot easily be seen, but can explode if ignited.  Employers are expected to fully understand the substances involved and assess in what ways are they harmful.  There are a wide range of sources available to assess in what ways a product is harmful, but at least always check the safety data sheet from the manufacturers for more information.

When assessing the tasks of individuals in the workplace it is important to understand how the substance might be harmful and how might the workers be exposed.  Is it from breathing in gases, fumes, mist or dust?  Other hazards which might affect the employee could include contact with the skin, swallowing, contact with the eyes and skin puncture.

Once inhaled, some substances can attack the nose, throat or lungs, whilst others get into the body through the lungs where they can then harm other parts of the body for example the liver, which, due to it’s filtering role, is the target organ for many substances.

Change processes or materials if possible

Having conducted a risk assessment, the safety professional needs to consider, in conjunction with the senior operational management, what changes in processes or materials could be implemented to help reduce hazards.

Employers must accept that merely providing protective equipment and respirators is not an answer to developing and implementing different work practices and processes. It is imperative to eliminate or reduce respiratory hazards to the lowest feasible levels through improved work practices and controls.

Areas which employers should consider include the potential of employees working less hours in such a hazardous environment and changing a product to one with less hazardous properties or one with, for examples, a lower evaporation rate.

Additionally, we could consider improved ventilation by opening up walls with natural air or provide fans to help circulation of air.

We might also think what processes, methods and techniques, could be implemented to reduce the levels of risk for example hand rolling adhesive or paint rather than spraying?  Can a control room, enclosure or exhaust hood be built to distance employees from emissions?

Control exposure levels

What more is an employer able do to limit the exposure levels of people at work and others who may be affected by work activities?  Controlling measures is a mixture of using different equipment and processes and providing a standard operating procedure to combine the right equipment with the right way of working.  An employer needs to implement control measures that work and continue to work all day, every day.

Our primary approach must always be to try and provide a safe place of work if at all possible, that is; to control emissions and exposure wherever possible.  However, having exhausted all engineering and similar controls, we should also consider issues including rotating staff on a particular task to minimise the length of time exposed to a particular hazard.  Consider if it is possible to reduce the volume of several harmful chemical substances simultaneously.

Having tried to create the safe place of work as far as we can, additional examples of control measures around hazardous substances include providing personal respiratory protective equipment.

Provide respiratory protective equipment

Despite management controls and improved processes it may not always be possible to eliminate respiratory hazards entirely.  In these instances employee protection must be achieved through the use of protective equipment.

The various forms of RPE (Respiratory Protective Equipment) protect users from inhaling airborne contaminants that are generally unseen and therefore unnoticed. However, some people might believe that RPE is simply a multi-purpose mask, but there is a range of different products designed for respiratory protection in various industries.

The correct form of RPE (Respiratory Protective Equipment) depends on the hazards the user faces. The level of protection required is dependent on the work being carried out in different environments. The primary question is; is there sufficient oxygen to support life?

If the answer is no, and we must still enter the working environment, then we have to use breathing apparatus, which in essence provides us with a supply of breathable air via either a self contained system or a line-fed system.

If there is sufficient oxygen, then we can consider a respirator, which filters out harmful substances, but replies on there being sufficient breathable air once the impurities are removed.

Whether it is working with dust, gas or chemicals it is vitally important that a risk assessment is conducted in order to identify the appropriate form of RPE needed.

Dr Bob Rajan, from the UK’s Health and Safety Executive Chemical Risk Assessment and Control Group has stated, “Every year in the UK, industry spends around £250 million on RPE, but a sizeable portion of this money is wasted because the equipment selected is not right for the job or used wrongly. This can result in RPE wearers being exposed to avoidable hazards to their health or even life.

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