How To Manage Dangerous Substances In The Workplace
Some industries are notorious for putting their workers at risk. In construction, for instance, news of workers falling from scaffolds, getting crushed by lorries, or cutting, burning or electrocuting themselves rarely make news headlines.
According to a study by health and safety consultant Arinite, 1.36 in every 100,000 construction workers died in the UK in 2017 due to a work accident. Cases of dangerous working conditions resulting in injuries, accidents and huge consequent penalty fines are widespread on the HSE.
Infamous incidents, like Alton Towers, bring awareness to slack health and safety precautions and their tragic consequences. However, not every danger in the workplace is as well-known and taken care of as slips, traps and plugged-in chain-saws.
Last year, the HSE recorded 137 fatal injuries to workers across all industries in total. The number of lung disease deaths linked to past exposure at work is estimated to be about 12,000 per year.
Long-term health issues from exposure to dangerous substances frequently include asthma, leukaemia or cancer – and workers don’t notice the threat until it is too late. Indeed, compared to a slip, the source of danger can be much more difficult to detect. Yet, the UK is facing an issue that seems to have been neglected for far too long.
In Europe, more than 38% of all enterprises reported using potentially dangerous chemicals in their workplace. To make sure that businesses prioritise their employee’s health and safety, protecting them against occupational diseases, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has created a new campaign, called Healthy Workplaces Manage Dangerous Substances 2018-19. They are asking for an improved prevention culture to decrease the number of workplace-related illnesses and health risks on both the manufacturers and the consumers’ side.
Many workers don’t realise the dangers they are facing in the workplace every day. At first sight, substances like paint, glue or detergent seem slightly unpleasant to work with at most, but don’t strike as potentially life-threatening chemicals.
However, long-term exposure can turn those seemingly harmless products potent disease triggers. Fine dust, like flour, can trigger asthma when inhaled on a regular basis. Wet cement can lead to chemical burns. Damp vegetable or fruit might cause fungus infections or dermatitis. Pesticides increase the risk of developing leukaemia. And that’s just a brief glimpse into a long list of products many workers are dealing with on a regular basis.
In order to improve working conditions of those exposed, the new campaign is addressing three topics in particular:
- Raising Awareness
Often, low awareness is at the heart of the problem. If a worker is not aware they are working with a harmful substance, sensible handling is practically impossible. Everyone potentially exposed to chemicals or biological substances needs to be trained and informed thoroughly. Only then can risks be handled, reduced and eliminated.
But raising awareness does not just apply to workers – it needs to involve everyone in the work process, from manual labour worker to manager, to the consumer. Chemicals like asbestos can cause health problems even decades after initially used as they remain in our daily lives as part of our houses, workplaces and public spaces.
Helping companies understand that using these substances may cause severe illnesses to their staff and also outsiders further down the line, is crucial when trying to establish a healthy business approach.
- Risk Assessment
Internally, every health and safety plan starts with a risk assessment. But unfortunately, sometimes an audit doesn’t fully uncover all safety hazards. Only an experienced, competent consultant will be able to identify those often hard-to-spot dangers – like invisible, but toxic, gases. An assessment should involve identifying and erasing risks by making sure that every employee knows how to handle potentially dangerous situations.
Also, since working environments change, new people get hired, and memories fade, regular health and safety training is necessary. Ideally, a safety officer should check for unidentified hazards and educate workers, managers, and employers every six months.
In terms of health and safety laws, a good grasp of legislation is needed to understand where employer’s legal responsibilities lie and how to ensure the business is compliant.
- Practical Effects
Even with a comprehensive health and safety policy written down, realising those guidelines in practice is a completely different story. Safety instructions printed on the wall do not guarantee people reading and following them. Access to safety gear and protective clothing does not mean workers will use it.
Monitoring staff and establishing the benefits of sticking to the safety policy is very important. People don’t like to blindly follow rules, so educating them about dangers that could potentially affect them personally, will help with ensuring they are taking the advice to heart.
If any instructions or training sessions leave behind unanswered questions or uncertainty with the staff, management needs to follow up and make sure those questions are answered right away.
Companies need to start working towards a healthy, sustainable future right now, prioritising their workers’ well-being. It is not surprising that manual jobs are becoming less attractive to young job-seekers as other industries attract with much better working conditions.
But manual work doesn’t have to be dirty and dangerous – it can be a rewarding and fruitful environment to work in when employers are setting the right frame for it.