Occupational disease places a heavy burden on workers and the workplace. Some workers may experience temporary life-changing illness, while others develop life-ending illness. There are many types of occupational disease such as respiratory disease, skin diseases, cancers, asbestos-related disease, musculoskeletal disease, and work-related stress to name a few.
Asbestos, specifically, is one hazard that has the potential to create long-term adverse health effects. Each year, asbestos kills around 5,000 workers in the United Kingdom. Although the importation and use of asbestos has been banned since 1999 in the UK, it can still be found in buildings built or restored before the year 2000. Asbestos-containing materials can be commonly found in items like floor tiles, building materials, and pipe insulation. Asbestos fibres are easily released into the air, simply by activities that disturb the asbestos-containing materials. If inhaled, the fibres can become trapped in the lungs and embedded in the digestive tract. Asbestos is a known human carcinogen and can cause the following serious diseases:
- Asbestos-related lung cancer
- Pleural thickening
Its connection to gastrointestinal cancers and disorders is not entirely clear but is suspected. According to the Health and Safety Executives (HSE), there were 2,535 deaths in 2012 due to mesothelioma caused by past exposure to asbestos, and lung cancer deaths caused by asbestos is likely to be around the same number. In 2013, asbestosis, a form of pneumoconiosis caused by inhalation of asbestos fibres, accounted for 217 deaths where asbestosis was specifically recorded as the underlying cause of death, and 516 deaths where asbestosis was likely to have contributed as a cause. According to the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB), there were 985 newly assessed cases for asbestosis in 2014. This disease is characterized by scarring and inflammation of the lung tissue and is an irreversible condition with no present cure. Pleural thickening—another form of scar tissue in the lungs–is typically not as serious as some of the other asbestos-related diseases, but has shown to cause around 430 new cases per year over the last 10 years.
So where do we go from here?
Initially, it’s important to be aware of the hazards present before you start any work. This should include knowing when asbestos is present, where it is located, and the condition it is in. Conduct a risk assessment of the building or task being performed to uncover who will potentially be at risk and establish the level of exposure that will be present. Finally, confirm that all workers are educated and trained on where to find asbestos, the proper handling and disposal of asbestos-containing materials, and proper personal protective equipment (PPE) use. You and your workers should assume that any material you come in contact with contains asbestos and take the appropriate precautions.
There are many sources available for workers that should be utilized for awareness of asbestos. The HSE provides a considerable amount of information on topics such as:
- Why asbestos is dangerous
- Where asbestos can be found (industrial and residential)
- Who’s at risk
- Managing and working with asbestos
I encourage you to do your research and be aware of the hazards present BEFORE you begin a job. You can’t undo asbestos exposure, but you can prevent it.