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Reduce the risk this Love Your Lungs Week

When selecting types of PPE, the correct selection of respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is critical When selecting types of PPE, the correct selection of respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is critical

Arco share insights into what businesses need to know to protect their employees’ respiratory health

AN estimated 19,000 new cases of breathing or lung problems were caused or made worse by work annually over the last three years, according to self-reports from the Labour Force Survey. This statistic is entirely preventable if risks are appropriately controlled, say safety specialists Arco, and Love Your Lungs Week (21–27 June) is an ideal opportunity to raise the profile of respiratory health as a serious workplace safety issue.

Businesses and organizations must know how to protect staff and provide adequate respiratory protection. Employers have a legal duty to put in place suitable arrangements to manage workplace health and safety, including compliance with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH). A considered approach can prevent future deaths and ensure regulatory compliance.


What are the dangers? The inhalation of hazardous substances poses a serious risk to workers’ health. Hazards can be present in the form of dusts, fibres and fumes, mists and sprays, micro-organisms, gases and vapours. However, this type of exposure is more common in certain industries, such as construction and manufacturing, with the largest estimate of occupational cancer cases.

A hazardous substance of particular prominence is respirable crystalline silica (RCS) or silica dust. This is a common by-product of many manufacturing tasks, such as brick and tile manufacture, ceramics, stone working, kitchen worktop manufacture and foundry work, which can all produce airborne silica particles that are invisible to the naked eye.

Inhalation of RCS can cause the development of the following lung diseases:

  • Silicosis – makes breathing more difficult and increases the risk of lung infections. Silicosis usually follows exposure over many years, but extremely high exposures can lead to rapid ill health

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – a group of lung diseases, including bronchitis and emphysema, resulting in severe breathlessness, prolonged coughing, and chronic disability. It can be very disabling and is a leading cause of death

  • Lung cancer – can be caused by heavy and prolonged exposure to RCS dust. When someone already has silicosis, there is an increased risk of lung cancer.

What can be done? The first step toward protecting employees and workers is identifying the materials and substances that present a respiratory health hazard. Organizations and businesses must understand the specific risks of any materials within a workplace to ensure the appropriate control measures are in place. 

Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDs) serve as a valuable tool for collating and digesting information regarding any potentially hazardous substances in a workplace. This includes identification, make-up and usage, and advice on exposure controls and personal protection.

Moreover, understanding relevant hazardous substances in the workplace is not only crucial for protecting employees, but also forms the foundation in conducting a risk assessment – a vital process to be carried out before work can begin. Being proactive is essential for any risk assessment, requiring a consideration not only of hazardous materials but also of individuals who may come into contact with them, including both employees and the public. A full risk assessment is essential to maintain regulatory compliance and safeguarding employees’ well-being.

Following a complete risk assessment and recognizing any potential hazards, preventative and protective measures should be implemented. This is highly conditional to the specific work scenario; however, all situations should first consider the possibility of substitution of hazardous materials. The removal of risk is the easiest path to safety. In cases where this is not possible:

  • Utilize engineering controls to remove or reduce employee exposure. These might be less powerful tools, water systems or an ‘on-tool’ dust-extraction solution

  • Provide PPE in the form of respiratory protective equipment (RPE). An effective respiratory management programme will ensure correct RPE selection, face-fit testing (for tight fitting RPE), relevant training and regular equipment inspections and maintenance. When selecting types of personal protective equipment, the correct selection of RPE is critical. Experts should be consulted if there is any uncertainty

  • Carry out regular employee health monitoring to ensure that all control measures are working. Monitoring employees’ health can identify early signs of exposure and can inform updates on current control measures.

By working together, needless deaths from work-related lung diseases can be prevented. A well-thought-out approach to risk management and the correct RPE can dramatically reduce the current statistics across all sectors.

As part of a series of toolbox talks, Arco have produced a video on respiratory protection and advice for those working around silica dust

Following submissions to both consultations by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Respiratory Health, relating to the hazards of silica dust, Arco accepted an invitation to join a panel of industry experts to advise the Government on how to tackle the risks associated with silica dust. Arco’s recommendations were included in the APPG’s updated report, ‘Improving Silicosis Outcomes in the UK’, which was released earlier this year.


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