Underlying health conditions caused by occupational exposure

If there is one thing all of us have learned during this past year, it’s that looking after our health and the health of others is all about minimising risk as much as reasonably practicable. 

 COVID-19 has shown us that not everyone is at the same level of risk from any particular hazard. We’ve known for a long time that smoking, not exercising and eating unhealthily are all detrimental on their own, but together each one can increase the risk of all the others. Similarly, COVID-19 is far more dangerous when it exists alongside other conditions.

We’ve learned a lot about how to protect ourselves and others. We’ve also seen that life must go on, and everything can’t just grind to a halt indefinitely. So when we consider the future – as well as the fact that COVID-19 is unlikely to simply go away; like the flu, it will likely always be with us – it’s a good time to think about easy ways that we can protect ourselves in the long term.

COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory disease. For that reason, it poses a much greater risk to people who already suffer from another respiratory condition.


“Of the 50,335 deaths that occurred in March to June 2020 involving COVID-19 in England and Wales, 45,859 (91.1%) had at least one pre-existing condition (source)”


One such condition that is well is COPD, which is a term used to describe a group of lung conditions that make it more difficult to breath. It usually develops because of the lungs being exposed to harmful substances.

Day to day, this could mean cigarette smoke or air pollution. But for many people – especially those of you working in trades – your work can expose you to additional hazards such as silica dust, fumes and asbestos.


According to the British Lung Foundation, an estimated 1.2 million people are currently living with diagnosed COPD, making it the second most common lung disease in the UK, after asthma.

Workplace risks that can contribute to COPD have been in the spotlight for a long time. But with the prevalence of COVID-19, isn’t it worth taking a fresh look at how we can reduce our risk of becoming even more vulnerable to its more serious symptoms? Shouldn’t we be taking all the measures available to protect our lungs?

Construction work has been prioritised to continue largely unimpeded during the COVID pandemic. Yet there has been a notable reduction in the uptake of training such as asbestos awareness despite the fact that people are still operating.

During a health campaign in October 2020, the HSE carried out 1118 site inspections and served 68 enforcement notices. Most incidents of non-compliance were related to dust, silica and asbestos risks not being adequately controlled.

And it’s not just those who work in construction who are at risk. COVID lockdowns have driven a surge in DIY projects. Being furloughed may present a great opportunity to refurb your own kitchen, but as well as learning how to tile you should also know what potential risks you could expose yourself to.


“COVID lockdowns have driven a surge in DIY”


Lockdown has caused an increase in fly-tipping with waste disposal sites, charity shops and recycling plants being closed. Local authority professionals are required to inspect the rubbish to determine the best route of action to clear it. Often the rubbish contains asbestos-containing materials.


The good news is that there is a lot that can be done to protect ourselves and others, and the majority of it is just about awareness. To help, here are a few things to consider about how you or your employer could be doing more to reduce the risks.


RPE – This is a requirement for many workplace tasks, but it’s something that’s often overlooked or neglected. Think back to the first lockdown. Nobody liked the idea of having to wear a mask, did they? But it’s a good time to recognise the benefits of protecting yourself with the right gear.

And it’s not just about putting on a mask; it’s about making sure your RPE is of the appropriate type and is being used correctly. The cloth face mask you’ve been keeping in your coat pocket might mean you’re allowed to walk into shops, but it won’t offer adequate protection from potential asbestos fibres on site.

RPE offers little to no protection if it isn’t maintained and worn correctly. We’ve all seen those people who wear their face masks under their noses, right? To offer the right level of protection, some forms of RPE require a fit test carried out within the last 12 months.

However, it’s worth keeping in mind that RPE should be treated as the last line of defence. It protects us in the event of exposure. But the need to prevent exposure in the first place is the job of…

We recommend that you get fit tested by a Fit2Fit accredited tester as recommend by the HSE, to ensure that you are being tested to the highest standard.


Control Measures – The reason for identifying risks on site is so that measures can be put in place to manage, minimise and prioritise the risks. Many routine tasks on site have proscribed control measures laid out by accreditation and construction bodies, and some of these control measures are legal requirements.

The idea of control measures is familiar to everyone these days. Control Measures in the form of restrictions and requirements such as social distancing have been imposed on everyone in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. This should be a call to action for all of us to make sure that we are upholding our responsibility to make workplaces safe. It’s also worth noting that the same unannounced HSE inspections that check for dust compliance are also being used to assess COVID compliance.

Risk management always involves a hierarchy of controls that may involve eliminating or isolating the hazard. Where those options are not possible, it comes down to making sure that the operatives themselves know how to keep the risk to a minimum. And that’s where it comes down to…


Workplace Awareness There is a wealth of training available to help workers be more aware of the risks of dust, fumes and chemicals on site.

The danger of not having sufficient awareness extends well beyond simply exposing your own lungs to dangerous substances. Secondary exposure – from dust and fibres on your clothes – can affect others who come into contact with you.

Your actions and awareness can affect other people on site, including householders if you are working in a private home. There is an often-mistaken distinction made between doing a job on a site and on private property. But if you are carrying out works in someone’s home, then that home is your ‘place of work’ and the same legal obligations apply. According to the HSE, domestic refurb sites perform worst on health and safety inspections, with a 51% breach rate compared to 34% of all sites inspected.


“HSE, domestic refurb sites perform worst on health and safety inspections, with a 51% breach rate compared to 34% of all sites inspected.”


Staff should be qualified and hold in-date certificates for the kinds of work they will be carrying out. This includes training such as accredited Asbestos Awareness. The liabilities and legal implications of not having in-date certification in the event of an incident can be severe.

Once again, it’s not just construction workers who should be aware of dust and asbestos-related hazards. Groundworkers can be overlooked since their work is outdoors, but asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) can be found in soil, and outdoor demolition can create dust clouds containing silica. Environmental Health Officers should also know how to identify potential ACMs, especially given the rise in fly-tipping that ensues from the increase in lockdown DIY projects and due to the closure of tips and recycling centres.


The Importance of Training

Everyone has felt the strain of this pandemic and the lockdowns, and many of us have made real sacrifices in the name of minimising the damage caused. Often it’s been difficult to see how the costs we incur are making a difference on the grand scale.

But when it comes to COPD and reducing our own vulnerability to the symptoms of COVID, the costs needn’t be great and the benefit is immediate and tangible.

Whether you are an employer, a construction worker, a DIY enthusiast or anyone who might be at risk of exposure to dust, fumes and harmful airborne fibres – take the time today to consider booking whether you need or could benefit from further training.

Find out more about the training that GHT offers via our website or email training@ghtechnical.com