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Respiratory Diseases: How Health Surveillance Can Help

Our lungs are complex and fragile organs. Responsible for getting oxygen into our blood stream, they are composed of millions of air sacs and hundreds of miles of capillaries. We have come to recognise in recent times the problems posed by poor air quality but many people are exposed to potentially dangerous situations in their day to day employment and for these groups regular lung-function testing is vital.

There are numerous jobs that pose a significant risk when it comes to air quality, perhaps more than many people think:

  • Hazardous substances such as dust can be breathed in by workers on a construction site creating a significant impact on health and wellbeing.
  • In agriculture, workers can be subject to toxic gases and dust from crops;
  • Engineers and oil and gas workers may be exposed regularly to fumes;
  • The baking industries are at risk from breathing in dust in the form of flour.
  • Those working with wood in the forestry industry and occupations such as welding and cleaning have significant challenges and risks when it comes to maintaining good lung health.

Long term exposure to particles such as dust or toxic fumes can lead to many health problems including occupational respiratory disease or the worsening of a pre-existing condition such as asthma that, if left untreated, could become life threatening. Occupational asthma, for example, is generally associated with substances that are inhaled during the process of work which cause irritation or an allergic reaction. It happens to people who have never had an episode of asthma before. With a condition such as work aggravated asthma, however, a person already with the condition find their symptoms getting worse because of the kind of task they are undertaking.

According to Personnel Today:

“Occupational factors account for around one in six cases of asthma in working-age adults, and approximately 90% of those are allergen attributable (British Occupational Health Research Foundation, 2010). Seven per cent of the UK adult population have asthma. More than one worker in five with asthma has work aggravated asthma.”

The good news for this and other potentially harmful conditions that could develop from breathing in dust and fumes is that, with the help of an occupational health team, the right control measures can be put in place to reduce risk from these hazardous substances and monitor health. This is where regular lung function tests come in.

Failure to monitor lung function can mean that employees develop conditions which can have long term, lasting and potentially life-threatening impacts, including:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: Damage is caused to the lung tubes and air sacs that cause difficulty breathing.
  • Silicosis: Those who work with stones and rocks can be exposed to respirable crystalline silica which causes hardening and scarring of the lung.
  • Asbestos: The dangers of asbestos is widely known and many old homes still contain it, all of which can put building and construction workers at risk if they don’t have adequate protection.
  • Pneumoconiosis: This is a group of lung diseases that is caused by inhaling dust over a prolonged period.

Reducing the Health Risks in Work

There is plenty of advice and guidance available to help reduce the potential impact from breathing in dangerous and noxious substances during work. The recently launched HSE Dust Hub offers numerous resources and information pages designed to help employers find ways to reduce these risks.

That includes providing employees with the right Respiratory Protective Equipment which delivers adequate protection but can also be worn safely and comfortably. There is also plenty of information concerning the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) 2002 and what obligations an employer may have to protect its workers.

Health Surveillance

Spirometry tests are mandatory in many industries where workers are exposed to risks like dust, irritants and harmful chemicals or vapours. They are recommended for any employee who is working with what are called respiratory sensitizers and they need to be carried out on a regular basis with regular monitoring.

Spirometry tests are intended to assess lung function and can be key in spotting any early damage. Occupational health professionals will begin by getting a baseline for each individual and then monitor over time with regular tests to ensure there has been no change. Not only is this useful for employees to ensure any problems are caught early, it also helps businesses meet their corporate responsibilities, adhere to health and safety regulations, and reduce the potential for employers’ liability for claims of compensation.

A lung function test takes just 15 minutes for each individual and looks at the types of substances which employees are exposed to on a daily basis. Because occupational health professionals monitor from a set base line, they can then advise and refer those whose lung function has been affected. This not only allows employers to ensure their staff are fit for work and remain healthy but can also help them put in preventative measures and reduce long-term sickness and absence.


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