Dr Adrian Hirst, a member of the British Occupational Hygiene Society, talks to TM about the recent findings on occupational cancer and what can be done to reduce the number of cases linked to workplace activity.
While safety performance in UK manufacturing has improved over the decades, the same hasn’t applied to worker health in the sector. Why do you feel this has been overlooked?
For a start, it’s fair to say the industry hasn’t measured the health side as effectively as it has the safety. We don’t see the effects of occupational hazards immediately. It’s very easy to stop someone falling off a ladder or slipping on a wire, but when it comes to a health hazard, everyone is exposed and it’s simply a question of how much. You move from the more probabilistic approach of safety to one of inevitability in health. It seems a bit too complicated for everybody to recognise the risk and do something immediately about it.
What is the next big occupational threat to manufacturing workers?
It is always difficult to make predictions. However there has been shown to be a link between shift work and breast cancer. More research will be carried out on this which may have an impact on the guidance about running shift systems. There is also a lot of talk about the use of new materials such as nano particles where the long term health effects are not fully known and need further research. Typically, there has always been a risk in industries working with everything from diesel exhaust emissions, wood dust, a few solvents and some metals.
Asbestos is a high cause of existing conditions. Are the level of reported new cases of asbestos related cancers declining?
They are declining, but not at the rate they should be. There is a long latency period between exposure to a substance and the onset of cancer. In asbestos this can be as high as 40 years. We still have a high rate of cases from people who were exposed a long time ago. Today, people are still left exposed through badly managed building refurbishment and maintenance.
Are manufacturers sufficiently knowledgeable of the link between reducing health risks, such as ones linked to cancer, with improving efficiency?
While some manufacturers are, unfortunately the vast majority unfortunately still aren’t. I find they struggle to come to terms with direct assessment for health risks. They often don’t form a connection between health risk with efficiency, quality and productivity. An example would be workers putting masks on to protect against dust. Masks will typically cost around £4, which appears easier than spending, for example, £50,000 on an extraction system for the facility. But often they don’t factor in the number of masks they’ll use and the training required to get the operators to use them, resulting in a decrease in productivity. If you do those kind of calculations, then going for the better level of control makes more sense in the long term.
How has regulation developed over time, and is the emphasis now on industry to make the difference?
We’ve had 20 or so years of European legislation, while research has shown businesses won’t do anything unless it’s legislated and spelt out to them clearly. The current government is attempting to give nudges to businesses but there is little evidence for this being effective in the area of health and safety. That said, we probably have as much legislation as we need. The Health and Safety Executive has spent the past year, at the government’s behest, trimming the guidance that goes with legislation as well as getting rid of some of the more archaic legislation. So now we have less, but the parts abolished weren’t really used anyway. It goes without saying that industry can certainly be influential in making a difference and reducing work place occupational hazards such as cancer.
You are to speak on the topic of hygiene safety at TM’s Health and Safety Conference in April. What are you looking to get out engaging with UK manufacturing?
I’m hoping to raise awareness of occupational hygiene, the health risks associated and of BOHS as a society. Over the years, we’ve made great strides in terms of reducing safety risks. The number of deaths we have in the UK is down to around 140 a year, which is a considerable drop in comparison to previous years and decades. But more can always be done, and it’ll be a great chance to get the message of BOHS across.