While COVID-19 continues to take centre stage when it comes to the prevention of respiratory illness in the workplace, there remain a host of airborne hazards that pose an equally high level of risk that employers cannot afford to overlook. Each of these must be assessed and controlled so as to prevent workers from contracting lung illnesses associated with working activities, such as occupational asthma, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, mesothelioma and lung cancer.
It is a devastating fact that an average of 13,000 people per annum die from occupational diseases contracted by frequent exposure to airborne hazards within their working environment, with two thirds of deaths caused by respiratory illnesses, asbestos-related diseases or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). The most dangerous aspect of airborne hazards is the fact that the harmful components are often unknowingly inhaled, with the symptoms associated with respiratory occupational diseases often taking years to present themselves, by which point it is usually too late to reverse the effects of the damage.
What kind of airborne hazards may affect employees in their roles and what are their associated health risks?
Airborne hazards are present in gaseous, aerosol and particulate form, most commonly as dusts, fumes, sprays, mist, smoke, solvents and fibres – as well as radiation and biological pathogens. Some of the most common airborne hazards that employees may come across as part of their day-to-day work include:
Dust is formed of tiny, dry particles that can be produced during working activities such as cutting, drilling, mining, grinding, abrasive blasting, demolishing, sanding and shovelling. The adverse health effects associated with dust inhalation depend on the particle size and the toxicity of the material that produces the dust. Present in many forms, examples of dust that workers will commonly come across include:
- Silica dust – created when working on silica-containing materials such as aggregates, concrete, mortar and sandstone. It is estimated that 500 workers per year die from the inhalation of silica dusts (‘respirable crystalline silica’)
- Wood dust – created when working on softwood, hardwood and wood-based products such as MDF and plywood
- ‘General’ dust – created when working on materials containing very little or no silica such as gypsum (in plasterboard), limestone, marble and dolomite
- Metallic dusts – from metals such as lead, aluminium, cadmium
- Chemical dusts – present in coal, sulphur, pesticides
- Vegetable dusts – created when working with agricultural products such as flour, pollen, grain, etc.
As one of only two airborne hazards with its own set of regulations (Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012), exposure to asbestos has extremely severe health consequences if repeatedly inhaled over a prolonged period of time. Causing an average of 5,000 deaths per year, asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) pose the greatest level of risk when disturbed or damaged as a result of maintenance or demolition work, as this allows the fibrous mineral to become airborne and potentially inhaled, increasing the risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis.
Frequent exposure to high concentrations of welding fumes is known to cause long-term damage to the lungs and nervous system, with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifying all welding fume and UV radiation from welding as Group 1 carcinogens. This indicates that there is sufficient evidence to say that this airborne hazard causes cancer in humans, with certain combinations of chemicals and fumes – such as stainless steel, chromium iron and nickel – especially notorious for causing respiratory issues.
Diesel Engine Exhaust Emissions
Diesel Engine Exhaust Emissions (DEEE) can affect any worker who comes into close proximity with diesel vehicles or generators, with the sooty particulates and oxides of nitrogen compounds causing coughing, breathlessness and, in some cases, asphyxiation if workers are exposed to high concentrations. Like welding fumes, DEEEs are classified as Group 1 carcinogens, meaning that prolonged exposure to these emissions has been proven to cause an increased risk of lung cancer.
As the second largest cause of lung cancer deaths after smoking, radon is another airborne hazard that is invisible to the naked eye, taking the form of an odourless, colourless radioactive gas that enters buildings primarily by airflow from the underlying ground. While most radon is immediately exhaled, the decay products left behind are radioactive and attach to atmospheric dust and water droplets, which can then be inhaled and lodged in the lungs and airways.
While Legionella is a waterborne pathogen, exposure occurs via the inhalation of an aerosol of contaminated droplets. It can therefore still be considered as an airborne hazard once it has contaminated a building’s water system. Aerosols can be generated from many sources, including spas, showers, vehicle wash systems and air conditioning units. Legionella bacteria can lead to such illnesses as pneumonia and Legionnaires’ disease, both of which attack the body’s respiratory system.
There is sufficient scientific evidence to indicate that a primary route of COVID-19 transmission is via the inhalation of respiratory droplets, categorising the virus as the latest airborne hazard that workplaces must now contend with. To effectively control the risks of the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, employers must implement and regularly review a COVID-19 risk assessment for the premises in which they operate. In order to be fully compliant with the latest government guidance, the risk assessment must factor in such topics as social distancing, cleaning and hygiene regimes, working from home arrangements and PPE.
How can employers minimise and control their workers’ exposure to airborne hazards?
Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002, employers are legally required to assess and control the risks to employees’ health arising from work activities as far as is reasonably practicable. In particular, COSHH requires employers to control any substances that are hazardous to health, including those which are airborne. When exposing their workers to hazards and risks where there is a disease associated with the substance, employers are also legally required to provide health surveillance (as per the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999).
As part of COSHH 2002, employers should conduct a suitable and sufficient risk assessment to measure and evaluate the risks posed by airborne hazards, taking the necessary steps required to prevent, reduce and control exposure levels produced during working activities. Examples of preventative and engineering measures that employers can adopt to control exposure to airborne hazards include:
- Hierarchy of control – employers should adhere to the COSHH hierarchy of control at all times when assessing whether airborne hazards can be reduced. This is a process which has been specifically designed to eliminate or reduce exposure to hazards (including those which are airborne)
- Adhering to Workplace Exposure Limits (WEL) – employers must ensure that workers’ exposure to airborne hazards must not exceed the Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL) for each specific substance. In many cases, there is a duty to reduce exposures to as low as reasonably practicable, and not just below the WEL
- Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV) – LEV (such as captor and receptor hoods) help employers to control exposure to gas, vapour, dust, fumes and mist that their workers are exposed to by capturing these hazardous substances before they can be breathed in
- RPE – regarded as a last resort of protection when exposure cannot be adequately controlled by other means, Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) is purposely designed to protect the user from inhaling any potentially hazardous substances. Employers must ensure that such equipment is fitted and maintained properly in order to guarantee an employee’s health and safety.
What else is currently being done to prevent overexposure to airborne hazards?
In 2013, the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) launched the Breathe Freely campaign, a nationwide initiative aimed at reducing occupational lung diseases in the UK construction industry, while also raising awareness of the potential risks and hazards associated with exposure to airborne contaminants. Not only has this campaign helped to protect the long-term health and wellbeing of employees against airborne hazards, it has also encouraged employers to educate their employees as to how to adopt and maintain good occupational hygiene practices.
The BOHS also recently founded the Faculty of Asbestos Assessment and Management (FAAM), which is formed of professionals who deal with the fibrous mineral as part of their day-to-day role. The purpose of the faculty is to ensure that these professionals operate to the highest levels of competency and standards, helping to raise awareness of the health risks associated with asbestos exposure and reduce any ongoing issues caused by the fibrous mineral.
Most recently, as of October 2020, the HSE began a month-long initiative focusing on the respiratory risks caused by the inhalation of dust, asbestos and silica on construction sites. Examining the measures businesses have in place to protect workers’ lungs from airborne hazards, HSE inspectors are able to visit sites at any time and assess how well employers are preventing exposure to dust, asbestos and silica hazards against a specific set of criteria, taking necessary enforcement action if sites fail to meet any of these.
How can SOCOTEC help?
SOCOTEC’s Environment & Safety division is well equipped to assist your business to effectively control, reduce and eliminate exposure to airborne hazards in workplace. Examples of services that SOCOTEC provides include:
- Dust monitoring/instrument hire and nuisance dust assessments
- LEV assessments
- Asbestos management
- COSHH Awareness training and COSHH online training
- Environmental swabbing – COVID-19.
If you would like further information on any of the above services, click on the links above or contact us.
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