Home>Health, Safety & Welfare>Breathing safely>Tackling occupational lung disease

Tackling occupational lung disease

11 September 2017

HSE is focusing on occupational lung disease (OLD) as one of three priorities as part of its new Health and Work strategy. Marie Warburton, policy advisor at HSE's Health and Chemicals Unit, explains more

For many years, HSE has been able to report an encouraging story of continual improvement in workplace safety; the numbers of fatalities and serious injuries occurring in Great Britain’s workplaces show a decreasing trend. The picture on occupational ill-health, however, is not so encouraging with generally little change over recent years. 

A priority area for HSE is occupational respiratory disease which, linked to exposure to chemicals or dust, is estimated to result in approximately 12,000 deaths each year. Estimates from the 2013/14 to 2015/16 Labour Force Survey indicate that around 36,000 people who worked in the previous year (and 141,000 who had ever had a job) reported lung or breathing problems that were caused or made worse by work. There are an estimated 14,000 new cases of breathing or lung problems caused or made worse by work each year, resulting in at least an estimated 400,000 working days lost.

Occupational lung disease presents a particular challenge as the causes are often not easily recognised. The air might look clear to breathe but the small particles that get deep into the airways and lungs and cause the often irreversible damage cannot be seen. The effects themselves may take many years before they become apparent. This leaves the worker with a legacy that often the employer does not see and means then that both causes and effects are overlooked.

HSE’s vision for OLD is that anyone who goes to work should expect to breathe the same quality of air that they would outside work.    

HSE may be taking the lead on tackling OLD but much of what is planned is around working more closely with partners within the health and safety system. In fact, HSE has established a Healthy Lung Partnership (HLP) made up of employers, employees, trade unions, professional bodies, other government departments, third sector, and representatives from trade associations. The purpose of the HLP is to both work together, and independently, to raise awareness of, and ultimately contribute to, a reduction in the number of cases of occupational lung disease.  

Other planned activities include targeted HSE inspections of activities that create a greater risk of lung disease, for example work where respirable crystalline silica can be generated, welding in manufacturing, and activities where occupational asthma is a problem such as in bakeries. Asbestos remains on the radar, in particular those activities where workers can be exposed when its presence is less obvious, such as in refurbishment.

HSE will be working with HLP, and other partners, across a range of activities including encouraging consultants to provide proportionate and risk-based advice, supporting the rolling out of the ‘Learning Occupational Health by Experiencing Risks’ project, known more simply as ‘LOcHER’ - an exciting and innovate approach introducing apprentices to health and safety in the workplace, and using insight research to help target our communications more effectively.

A more detailed exploration of our plans and how they are developing will be made at the HSE-organised Workplace Healthy Lungs Summit at the QEII Centre on 22nd November this year.

Website links: https://www.hsl.gov.uk/healthy-lungs; http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/; http://www.hse.gov.uk/strategy/index.htm