Occupational Disease in the UK – a Growing Epidemic

Every day, some workers in the United Kingdom bring home something extra with them—their workplace exposure to potential health hazards. Many workplace hazards–like chemical spills and motorized vehicle accidents–are easily recognized while some are not even acknowledged. It’s these seemingly, non-serious hazards that have the potential to cause long-lasting adverse health effects. For example, many serious occupational diseases have a long latency period between exposure and advancement, meaning it could take a number of years for a life-threatening disease to become established. The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE, a non-departmental body akin to OSHA in the United States) estimated that for 2013/2014, 2.0 million people were suffering from an illness caused or worsened by their current or previous work.

In those same years, approximately 13,000 people in the UK died from occupational lung disease and cancer caused by past exposure to chemicals and silica dust at work. On top of that, an estimated 1.2 million workers suffered from an illness believed to have been caused or worsened by their working conditions. As workers are continually being exposed to dangerous chemicals and dust, their bodies continue suffering from the adverse effects of those interactions. Many of these workers have worked in environments for years and only recently have begun to experience the negative implications of the work. This means that in many situations, it could be too late for those workers even after the organization recognizes the problem and implements corrective actions.

Apart from the human toll, another aspect to consider is days off work due to illness. In 2013/2014, the UK lost 23.5 million days due to work-related illness, and each ill health case averaged 19 days off work. If you add the ill health, fatalities and days off work that correspond to occupational diseases, there is an economic impact to consider. In 2012/2013, a total of £14.2 billion was lost, with new cases of workplace illness accounting for around £8.6 billion. Illnesses that resulted in seven or more days off work accounted for £8.4 billion, while those up to six days of absence totaled around £0.2 billion. The cost for occupational illness is high. To put these cost values in perspective, injuries (including fatalities) only totaled £5.6 billion.

The HSE has established the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR) which puts duties on employers, self-employed, and the Responsible Person to report serious workplace accidents, occupational diseases, and specified dangerous occurrences. According to regulations 8 and 9 of RIDDOR, the list of occupational diseases for reporting purposes covers most all occupational diseases. In addition to the reporting regulations, the HSE has the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) which covers chemicals, fumes, dusts, vapours, germs that cause diseases, and others. Lead, asbestos, and radioactive substances have their own specific regulations, so those are not included within the COSHH.

Along with the regulations, the public, private, and other sectors are attempting to tackle occupational diseases. The HSE has created an Occupational Disease Community site, which has been created to “encourage promotion and exchange of ideas and initiatives for tackling occupational disease.” Two specific areas are presently in focus:

  • Respiratory diseases (including asthma, COPD, and silicosis)
  • Occupational cancer (all routes of exposure)

By being aware of the regulations and community sites, and staying abreast of leading indicators, workers and managers can be aware of the hazards from the onset and make the workplace safer and healthier.

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