Updated: Nov 15, 2020
A worrying 99 per cent of work-related deaths each year are the result of occupational diseases, not injuries. So, it is crucial Safety Reps ensure the occupational hygienists used to assess workplace risks and exposure levels have the right skills, the right brief and the right oversight.
The work-related death toll runs to tens of thousands each year, with occupational cancers and chronic obstructive lung diseases alone contributing over 12,000 deaths.
But that’s just part of it. Most occupational cancers never make it to these HSE statistics. Reproductive hazards can affect two generations and are invisible in the figures. Workers get told problems like obesity, lung disease and mental illness are the result of bad habits or bad luck, but work is frequently at the root of the problem. And bad jobs, with low pay, insecurity or heavy-handed management, can damage your overall physical and mental health, leaving you working wounded, on the sick or out of work.
So, when management sets about assessing the range and extent of problems in the workplace – which will frequently mean bringing in an ‘occupational hygienist’ - it is important union safety reps make sure they are asking the right questions, using the right experts and involving the union at every stage.
A November 2016 guide to occupational hygiene for union health and safety representatives, published jointly by the TUC and the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), says the role of an occupational hygienist is ‘extremely important’ in ensuring that workers are protected and that necessary health tests and surveillance are carried out. The guide says occupational hygienists can be brought in to deal with problems ranging from measuring the extent of risks posed by hazards like chemicals, noise and vibration, to the control, communication and maintenance of management systems and equipment to address them.
An Occupational Hygienists role is to: • provide advice on workplace health risk assessments • carry out personal exposure monitoring and analysis • advise on control measures such as local exhaust ventilation • provide training • conduct audits, and • support the communication of health risks and control measures.
These roles have been supplemented recently by stress assessment and management, drug and alcohol policy and other ‘wellness’ initiatives. If it affects your health at work, your employer could be giving an occupational hygienist a say in whether there is a problem and what should be done. Therefore, Union health and safety representatives, working in partnership with occupational hygienists, are in a unique position to help spearhead important transformational change in workplaces to bring health on a par with safety and ensure that work-related health risks are no longer overlooked in Britain’s workplaces.
Cause and effect - The TUC/BOHS guide says: “All tasks, including routine, non-routine, maintenance and emergency work, should be assessed using suitable assessment tools. Where needed, workplace occupational hygiene monitoring should be used to confirm exposure risks. Make all bases are covered – checking out chemicals when the problems in your workplace are manual handling or fatigue, for example, might be a pointless exercise.
“If personal exposure risks are elevated, then exposure should be controlled using a hierarchy of systematic controls in order of preference listed below. This is known as the hierarchy of control and involves:
• elimination • substitution • technical or engineering controls • administrative or management controls • personal protective equipment (PPE).”
Some firms have occupational hygiene and health and safety expertise in-house. Increasingly though these services are bought in. But the wrong expert answering the right questions wrong, or the right expert answering the wrong questions, can be a liability. Don’t take recommendations at face value. Do your own research, including consulting directly with the workers’ affected. Assessing the assessor - Companies sometimes get only what they ask for. If chemical exposure readings are taken when production is low or reported exposures seem curiously low even though workers are concerned about possible symptoms, then query them. It’s not unknown for results of air monitoring or person exposures to be fixed, to give an unhealthy workplace a clean bill of health.
Even properly obtained measurements showing the workplace is below the legal exposure limits, for example, chemicals, noise or vibration, don’t mean workers are safe.
HSE’s recommended limits for many substances, for example respirable crystalline silica, are set at levels where some workers will still develop life-threatening diseases. Legal limits are an economic compromise, not a promise of safety. And workplace exposures don’t act in isolation. Noise, certain chemicals, stress and shift-work can all be bad for your heart. Mix your exposures and the combined effect of several ‘safe’ exposures will amount to a dangerous combination. Ignore these factors and an occupational hygiene report is just litter.
Union surveys, reviews of sickness and injury figures and body and risk mapping exercises to determine the real-life impact of work hazards should be used in combination with occupational hygiene reports.
Safety Reps should do their own risk assessment of what an occupational hygienist is asked to do, does, reports and recommends.
Substances? Vapours, liquids, fumes, mists, solvents, dusts.
Environments? Noise, vibration, radiation, dry, wet, hot, cold, ventilation, indoor air.
Job design? Control, stress, bullying, ergonomics, work pressure, insecurity, harassment, discrimination, violence.
Welfare? Toilets, facilities, cleanliness. Accidents? Trips, falls, slips, cuts, scalds, burns, lifting, reaching.
Work factors? Overtime, long hours, piecework, shifts, homework, telework, rest breaks, deadlines, low pay.
Most importantly, Safety Reps should make sure their employer uses the right expert and asks the right questions. BOHS publishes a directory of qualified occupational hygienists. Check yours is properly qualified for the tasks they are being employed to do – and that the necessary workplace issues are being addressed. Check your occupational hygienist is in the BOHS directory. www.bohs.org/consultant