How the HSE plans to tackle work-related illness

The HSE has begun a five-year strategy focusing on big health issues at work, including stress, and musculoskeletal and lung problems, says Hywel Davies

Every year, around 12,000 people die from occupational lung disease as a result of exposure to dusts, fumes or vapours at work. Of these, around 8,000 will be because of asbestos-related illness or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Otherwise healthy men and women are robbed of their ability to live normal lives – to work or enjoy time with their children, let alone grandchildren.

Some of these conditions, such as work-related asthma, develop shortly after exposure; others – such as pneumoconiosis, COPD, lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma – develop many years later. They are caused by a wide range of agents, from dusts, fumes and vapours through to biological organisms.

Asbestos and respirable crystalline silica (RCS) are substantial contributors to lung disease, and particular hazards in construction and building services. Some people now dying of asbestos-related disease were first exposed more than 50 years ago, through dusty work clothes brought home by their fathers. These are especially slow, long, latency killers.

8,000 premature deaths a year is equivalent to two Grenfell Tower disasters a week

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been reviewing the major long-term health problems which arise at work, and have identified stress, musculoskeletal disorders and occupational lung disease as the priority issues to be addressed.

In addition to the death toll, it is estimated around 14,000 new cases of breathing or lung problems are caused – or made worse – by work each year, resulting in at least 400,000 working days lost. It is a chronic, but preventable, problem.

The HSE strategy1 for tackling work-related ill health has several aims, including:

  • Significant improvements in preventing and controlling exposure, especially in construction, manufacturing, quarries, mines, waste and recycling, and agriculture
  • Consultants and product suppliers giving employers advice that is fit for purpose
  • A rise in HSE’s/local authorities’ regulatory profile and cross-industry learning about ‘what works’
  • National, cross-sector leadership on eliminating occupational lung diseases
  • The next generation of workers being educated and empowered to expect better.

Achieving this will require coordinated, long-term action across all sectors, and working with partners – such as the NHS – to support the behaviour change and awareness programmes that are needed. A key element is prevention and readers can play an important role in this.

Any process which produces dust, vapour or fumes should be reviewed: is there an alternative way of working, or a substitute material or process which will avoid generating the hazard, or reduce the severity? This may apply to product manufacture or site processes, and designers have a duty to consider how the design can be realised safely.

If the hazard cannot be eliminated, then it needs to be controlled. That means managing the process to minimise the hazard and to control it in such a way as to prevent worker exposure. Often, this will involve exhaust ventilation to contain and remove the hazardous contaminant. This might apply on site, where dust is being generated or where welding creates fumes. The HSE has published a video which illustrates graphically the health risks of welding.2

Alternatively, a building may need to house a laboratory, or a workshop, where dusts, fumes or vapours may be routinely generated and need to be contained and removed. In this case, there is a clear need for consultants and product suppliers to give advice fit for purpose and appropriate to the process being controlled.

It may be advice is needed in the design of extract ventilation systems – a specialist competence of members of the Institute of Local Exhaust Ventilation Engineers (ILEVE), a CIBSE division,3 and specific extraction equipment may be needed to deliver effective control.

Occupational lung disease may be a slow killer, and does not attract the headlines or the political attention of an immediate disaster. But 8,000 premature deaths a year is equivalent to two Grenfell Tower disasters a week. It is a human tragedy, and could be reduced drastically by better design and management of workplace processes. CIBSE and ILEVE members have a key role to play in ensuring our workplaces are safer and healthier places, and in supporting the HSE as it seeks to ‘help Great Britain work well’.4


  1. HSE Go home Healthy campaign.
  2. Dr David Fishwick interviews Phil Hydes, asthma sufferer.
  3. Institute of Local Exhaust Ventilation Engineers.
  4. Helping Great Britain work well.