Health can often take a back seat when it comes to health and safety. Developing a skin irritation or losing your hearing isn't as dramatic as breaking your leg or losing an arm. You might not even notice health problems at first, so are they all that important? We focus on safety hazards. That's the priority. We try to 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 2018/2019 there were 144 fatal injuries to workers from safety hazards. Things like falls from height, being struck by a vehicle or from 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.
So remember, remember, your health this November!
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 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, or 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. Asbestos, vibration, noise, hazardous substances. Controlling these health hazards is so serious it's a legal requirement.
Exposure to asbestos 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 from mesothelioma, and another 2,500 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.
Consider your future self before starting an activity. Don't just think about what could harm you immediately. Think about the future. Are the things you do today putting your life in danger in years to come? Could something in this task cause you problems as you get older? Is there something you could do today to prevent suffering at a later date?
For example, checking an asbestos survey today could stop you exposing yourself to deadly asbestos fibres. Or wearing ear defenders 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.