The hidden pandemic – workplace health risks in highways

road related occupational health risks

Covid-19 has thrown the issue of workplace health into the spotlight. But in the highways sector, which has a heady cocktail of exposure hazards from manual handling to bitumen fumes, the control of workplace health risks has long been the Cinderella to accident prevention. Steve Perkins explains why we must focus much more on the health risks and points to pioneering work with Connect Plus and Highways England

It’s BIG!

The Health and Safety Executive estimates that annually 13,000 workers die from work-related (non-COVID) disease across all sectors in Great Britain. The total figure for accident fatalities is around 110-150 each year. So 99% health and 1% safety.

Of that total, construction alone accounts for 3,500 occupational cancer deaths, plus 5,500 new cases of occupational cancer each year. At any one time there are some 81,000 construction workers with work-related ill-health.

Highways accounts for a significant proportion of construction and has the usual cocktail of exposure hazards such as dust, noise, vibration, diesel exhaust, solvent and welding fumes, manual handling and solar radiation. And added to that of course, large amounts of bitumen fume.

Why ‘Pandemic’?

According the Centre for Disease Control in the USA, an epidemic refers to an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of an infectious disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area. And a pandemic refers an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people.

A key difference with work-related diseases is that generally they’re non-communicable i.e. you develop them through exposure to hazardous substances/processes and they’re not transmissible person-to-person. Strictly speaking epidemic and pandemic relate to infectious diseases. But, indulge me for a moment and assume we can apply them to non-communicable diseases as well.

Another difference is that work-related diseases generally have no cure. There’s no vaccine for silicosis or noise induced hearing loss.

The global picture for work-related fatalities is a little different to the UK with an estimated 2.3M disease deaths each year and 0.3M accident deaths (87% health and 13% safety). Although if we looked only at industrialised countries it would be similar proportions to the UK.

By any measure of scale this is a pandemic.

Why ‘Hidden’?

Firstly, unlike COVD, work-related diseases develop slowly, usually over a number of years and sometimes over a number of decades. This means that workers suffering these conditions retire early and die at home or in hospital or care homes. They are no longer ‘on the books’ of the employer who exposed them. That’s rather less visible than a workplace accident fatality isn’t it?

In fact HSE estimates that of the £16.2Bn cost of all work related injury and ill health, 66% is due to ill-health (and that only covers new cases of disease each year, not the burden due to past-exposure). Of that £16.2Bn employers pick up about 20%, government pays about 22% and individuals and families account for the remaining 56%. Not quite ‘risk-creator pays’ is it?

Secondly, workplace health hazards often go unrecognised and/or unobserved. Most people would probably recognise the risk of a fall from height quite easily, but do they appreciate the serious risks to lung health of dusts, fumes, fibres and vapours? We’ve found that in construction there is certainly an awareness and understanding gap to bridge when it comes to health hazards.

steve perkins highways related occupational health risks

Steve Perkins MA CDir FIoD FInstP AFOH is managing director of Steve Perkins Associates Limited

Highways UK Conference Panel

For this year’s Highways UK at the NEC on 3/4 November, we’ve assembled a high level panel of industry leaders and thinkers to discuss the issues raised by the ‘Hidden Pandemic’ in the context of highways and how we might begin to tackle the risks. Steve will be chairing the panel and highlighting some of the innovative work on health protection undertaken on the M25 in partnership with Connect Plus and Highways England. He will be joined by:

Andy Dean, Chief Executive, Connect Plus M25

Nicola Bell, Regional Director South East, Highways England

Dylan Roberts, Health, Safety and Wellbeing Director, Skanska

Alison Margary, President, BOHS – The Chartered society for Worker Health Protection

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