2nd November, 2023
Health often takes a back seat when it comes to health and safety. But last year there was triple the number of ill-health cases compared to injuries at work (1.8 million ill-health cases reported, 0.6 million injuries). So remember, remember, your health this November!
When you think about health and safety, you probably first think about accidents and injuries. You might not think about health hazards like dust or noise.
Developing a skin irritation or losing your hearing isn't as dramatic as breaking your leg or losing an arm! And it doesn't usually happen as quickly or have the same immediate impact either.
You might not even notice health problems at first, your ears might ring a little after a loud noise, but the ringing goes away. Your skin might be sore after a day exposed to concrete, but a bit of cream sorts that out.
So we focus on safety hazards as the priority. A bit of cream won't sort out a broken leg. And some rest isn't going to put someone's head back together.
We try to fix serious safety issues and make sure no one will come to immediate harm.
Unfortunately, when you take a look at the statistics, health issues at work are far more serious than you might realise.
In 2021/22 there were 123 fatal injuries to workers from safety hazards. Things like falls from height, being struck by a vehicle or contact with machinery.
Compare this to an estimated 12,000 lung disease deaths linked to past exposures at work, and you can see that health hazards are just as important to control.
Health hazards kill people at work, just not in front of you. Maybe in a hospital bed, 10 years from now.
So remember, remember, your health this November!
Because the next 12,000 deaths could be avoided, but it means looking ahead and considering how the health risks you are exposed to today might be damaging your future.
Sometimes, the health in health and safety can be low down on the business agenda. That is, immediate safety risks are given priority, and it is easy to see why.
If you can see an immediate danger, you act quickly. This is human nature, it’s just the same when you prioritise your workload, you get the urgent deadlines done first, and the work that is due in the distant future you deal with nearer the time.
Safety risks usually fall into this immediate danger category. Often, safety risks have an instant impact. If you fall and break your neck, the damage is done there and then. If you get hit by a bulldozer or cut by a saw, you know about it. The pain is felt at the time, and the consequences need to be dealt with.
Health hazards can be immediate, but often they are delayed. Including serious ones. Health problems often develop over several years. Even if one exposure can cause devastating health effects, they may not appear immediately. Exposure to hazardous substances and other causes of ill health may not affect you for decades.
You don't feel the impact, or pain, right away. You might not even realise you've been exposed to something harmful. Even if it might prove fatal later in life. Asbestos-related diseases and other health problems such as hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) might take 20 years or more to develop.
Occupational lung diseases typically have a long latency (they take a long time to develop following exposure to the agent that caused them). Therefore, current deaths reflect the effect of past working conditions.
The problem with health risks at work is that, while they may not affect you immediately, (or even within the next few weeks, months, or years), by the time you start to suffer, and you get around to thinking about, and even trying to deal with the problem, it might be too late.
Once the damage has been done, it often cannot be reversed.
Multiple exposures to materials such as asbestos, fumes, vibrating equipment, or even just sitting at your work desk might not pose any immediate risk to your safety, but what will be the impact later in life?
But health risks at work are important. So important that many have their own regulations.
Controlling these health hazards is so serious it's a legal requirement.
Asbestos exposure is a perfect example of how serious health risks can be. Every year around 5,000 people in the UK die as a result of past asbestos exposure. Around 2,500 are from mesothelioma, and another 2,500 are from other asbestos-related lung diseases and cancers.
Despite the well-known risks of asbestos, there are still numerous cases of exposure each year, and many buildings are worked on without the correct asbestos survey in place.
At the end of the project, if everyone goes home safely, what harm was done? If no accidents occurred, and no one was injured, then it was a safe project. But was it a healthy one? The team might be fine in the short term, but what about in 10 or 20 years?
If the effects of asbestos exposure were instant, killing nearly 100 people a week within days of exposure, there would be panic. It would be front-page news. Everyone would want to know if they were at risk. People would simply refuse to disturb any materials unless they were certain they did not contain asbestos.
But because the effects are not instant, it doesn't have the same impact. The consequences are so far removed from the event, that it doesn't get reported in the same way.
Ok, you might think this only really applies to construction. And yes, in our above example, asbestos exposure mostly occurs in construction work (although asbestos has killed people in other professions like teachers, actors, and emergency services).
But asbestos is just one of a wide number of health risks.
Think about your workplace. What health hazards can you spot?
Need help? Here's how to identify the biggest hazards in your workplace.
Consider your future self before starting an activity. Don't just think about what could harm you immediately. Think about the future.
For example, checking an asbestos survey today could stop you from exposing yourself to deadly asbestos fibres. Or wearing ear defenders when there's too much noise can help protect your hearing in the future.
Are there steps you could take today to reduce the long-term impact on your health?
Remember, when you are risk assessing an activity, don’t just consider the immediate safety risks, but also the long-term health risks, to keep your workforce safe AND healthy for the future.
This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.
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