Demystifying occupational hygiene – a guide for union health and safety reps

BOHS, the Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection, has, in collaboration with the Trades Union Congress (TUC), produced a new guide for union health and safety representatives.  The guide has been developed in response to industry demand, and aims to demystify the subject of health risks in the workplace, and in particular the role of occupational hygienists in working with representatives to control occupational health hazards.

The new guidance draws attention to the following disturbing statistics.  Each year in the UK:

  • A massive 99% of work related deaths are caused by occupational diseases, not by accidents
  • Approximately 13,000 people die from occupational diseases as a result of past exposures to hazardous substances.

However, whilst occupational health and safety policies and systems often have an excellent focus on safety – as of course they should – all too often there is a failure to sufficiently focus on work-related health hazards. These failures are frequently linked to the specific challenges associated with occupational health risks, particularly as such hazards can be invisible, silent and insidious in the long latency of their ill effects, with health problems only emerging many years later.

The aim of the new collaborative guidance from BOHS and the TUC is, therefore, to shine a spotlight on the historically overlooked area of health risks in the workplace, and also clarify the crucial role which occupational hygienists, in partnership with union health and safety reps, can play in better controlling occupational health hazards – for the benefit of Britain’s workforce.

The guidance highlights a wide variety of potential health hazards which may emerge in workplaces, ranging from dusts, extreme temperatures, fumes and biological agents, to vibration hazards, ergonomics issues, chemicals and noise.

The majority of work-related deaths are caused by occupational respiratory disease, as a result of people having breathed in dangerous substances during their working lives. In addition, around 33,000 people who worked in the last year, and 141,000 former workers, currently have breathing or lung problems they thought were caused or made worse by work.

The new guidance highlights the response of BOHS to these alarming figures, in the form of its Breathe Freely campaign – which aims to reduce occupational lung disease in the UK’s construction sector. This initiative is soon to be expanded, and will widen its focus to also encompass the manufacturing sector.

Other useful topics in the new guide include:

  • How to manage health risks, and what action to take to protect the health of workers
  • The difference between: occupational health; occupational hygiene; and wellbeing
  • How occupational hygienists can help union health and safety reps
  • The responsibilities of employers
  • The rights of health and safety representatives

Announcing the publication of the new guide, Steve Perkins, Chief Executive of BOHS, said, “We are delighted to collaborate with the TUC on this essential new publication for union health and safety representatives. The current levels of mortality, and morbidity rates, caused by occupational disease in Britain, are unacceptable and must be tackled via a concerted and highly focused approach. As a Society, we believe this collaborative approach, typified by partnership endeavours such as the new BOHS/TUC guide and our other similar projects to share expertise and guidance, is key to Britain’s future success in worker health protection.”

Hugh Robertson, Senior Policy Officer for Health and Safety at the TUC, added, “It is unacceptable in a modern, civilised society that each year, thousands of workers in Britain should battle ill health and lose their lives as a result of occupational health hazards which can effectively be controlled by the application of simple occupational hygiene principles. 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.”