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January 27, 2015

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Exposure control – the need for an integrated approach

Occupational exposure to hazardous substances continues to cause avoidable illness. HSE figures estimate that deaths from occupational cancer and other diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, outnumber those from safety failings almost 100 fold.

Recent blogs from HSL colleagues have covered the use of local exhaust ventilation (LEV) and respiratory protective equipment (RPE) to control the risk. In reality, effective control strategies usually rely on a combination of approaches. We need to keep in mind that there will always be a human element to consider, no matter what the industry. And while inhalation continues to be the most significant exposure route for many of the agents which can cause occupational disease, we shouldn’t ignore other exposure routes.

There’s no doubt that widespread implementation of control strategies based on elimination, substitution and the use of less dusty substance formulations have dramatically reduced risk in some industries. The continued drive to reduce the solvent content of paints, the steps taken in the rubber industry to remove carcinogenic agents from rubber formulations, and use of pellets rather than loose powders in soap detergents provide clear examples.

But hazardous substances are still present in many workplaces. One only has to think about construction sites, numerous manufacturing environments and even farms to appreciate this. In these situations, effective exposure controls are essential.

I see many situations where better segregation between workers and exposure sources would be easily achieved, at low cost and with minimal disruption to production activity. Safety guarding is almost a given on large, moving machinery. But the installation of enclosures which actually contain hazardous airborne contaminants is much less common. Often these can be constructed relatively cheaply, from plastic ‘strip’ barriers for example, which allow easy access to the equipment. As workplaces become increasingly automated, there is less need for people to work in close proximity to exposure sources.

Even well designed, properly commissioned and maintained LEV systems can fail through misuse. Proper training is an essential element to getting the best from LEV. This should cover correct use of the equipment, how to identify problems, and the potential health consequences of misuse, or system failure.

Although well designed LEV can minimise human error, this will always be present to some extent. And this is even more important when control relies on PPE. As Mike Clayton recently pointed out, fit testing provides an ideal opportunity to train workers in how to use RPE properly. But, in many workplaces fit testing simply isn’t being done. I’m currently involved with the wood working industry. Fewer than 1 in 4 of the companies we’ve worked with so far had conducted fit testing before we linked up with them. The uptake of health surveillance in this sector appears to be similarly low.

Skin exposure is another area where the human element plays a significant role. As inhalation exposures reduce, the relative contribution that skin absorption can make to total exposure will increase. In certain situations, such as polyurethane manufacture, exposure via the skin is far more significant than inhalation. And keep in mind that where skin exposure occurs, there can also be ingestion through hand to mouth contact. Individual worker behaviour can have a dramatic effect on exposures in this environment. Workers need to appreciate the risk, and be trained in the correct use of tools and PPE, if their health is to be protected.

All of this points to a need for a strong safety culture, which includes consideration of health issues, to protect worker health. With strong leadership, effective training, and an attitude that just doesn’t tolerate needless exposure to hazardous substances, any business should be capable of controlling the risks and preventing their employees from adding to future ill health statistics.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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