Spotlight on Occupational Safety

With air pollution making headline news, local officials are encouraging industry leaders to proactively address both workplace and environmental pollution. Poor air quality caused by chemical or organic toxins not only hamper productivity, but also may result in serious disease later on in life. In the UK alone, there are 12,000 deaths recorded each year that can be attributed to workplace respiratory illnesses. Conditions like occupational asthma, COPD, mesothelioma and farmer's lung can all be connected to occupational exposure.

The HSE estimates that nearly 141,000 workers have experienced some sort of respiratory illness that they attribute to unsatisfactory air quality on the jobsite. To avoid possible exposure, it's important to understand those which are most widespread.

Occupational Asthma

Occupational asthma is a breathing condition that is caused by the inhalation of air contaminants. The presence of particulate matter such as dust, mold, as well as chemical fumes or other toxins can result in standard asthma symptoms - including poor breathing or the inability to catch one's breath. While occupational asthma prevalence rests largely on where or what occupation a worker does, the best way to treat the illness is to use proper respiratory equipment. Occupational asthma can be reversed if caught early enough. However, chronic, long-term exposure to irritants can result in lifelong asthma.


Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, known as COPD, is a broad term used to describe progressive lung illnesses. Disorders such as emphysema, chronic asthma or bronchitis, can fall under COPD criteria. While tobacco usage is historically the number one cause of COPD, occupational exposure still accounts for many cases. Cadmium fumes, dust and welding fumes have been attributed to COPD, as chronic inhalation can cause illness. Prognosis for COPD patients depends on a variety of factors but COPD is a progressive condition. The best way to avoid COPD is through preventative measures such as not smoking or limiting time exposed to volatile materials.


Mesothelioma is a disease that is as rare as it is severe, and has been known to only be attributed to asbestos exposure. While asbestos has been banned in the UK, it can still be found in homes and buildings - built or refurbished before the year 2000, typically in insulation, roofing, and flooring. As the asbestos is moved, it becomes susceptible to crack and fragment. When these fragmented pieces are inhaled, they become lodged in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, and/or heart and lay dormant. Eventually, the asbestos particles cause the growth of cancer, known as mesothelioma. Outlook for diagnosed patients is quite bleak, as most of the affected people have only 12-21 months to live. Construction workers, military veterans, and plant workers are all at a much higher risk of being exposed to asbestos.

Farmer's Lung

Similar to occupational asthma, farmer's lung is caused by the inhalation of hay and straw, mold and/or grain particles. The disorder is characterized by tightness of the chest and inability to draw an adequate breath. Chronic exposure to these contaminants can cause long-term disability and even permanent lung damage, as well as cause the cessation of working in agriculture. Furthermore, existing allergies and hayfever can exacerbate the effects of farmer's lung, worsening the condition for the patient. The best preventive measure for farmer's lung is to make sure that crops and grains are sufficiently dried before they are moved and stored.

How Can I Protect Myself or my Workforce?

The best preventive measure for workplace respiratory illness is to be aware. Assess the risks and hazards and ensure your workers are equipped with appropriate protection. There are many reference sources available from government bodies, for example: the HSE (Health, Safety & Environment) and OSH (Occupational Safety & Health). PPE manufacturers such as Safeaid will often have a technical department on hand to advise and offer recommendations based on the risks involved. Ways to safeguard lung health include:

Proper usage of respirators offering the right level of protection.

Dust suppression systems and a proper dust control process.

Promote awareness among your employees.

Wear protective clothing and dispose of soiled uniforms or launder accordingly.

When implementing health & safety measures, including the selection and use of RPE, you must consult either: safety representatives appointed by recognised trade unions or employees, either directly or indirectly through elected representatives.

Useful further reading: HSE - Respiratory protective equipment at work. HSG53 (Fourth edition, published 2013)

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