Every year thousands of workers suffer ill-health as a result of exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace, with conditions ranging from skin diseases like dermatitis to far more serious and potentially fatal illnesses like respiratory lung disease or cancer.
Many of the more serious ailments related to work-based exposure are only just becoming clear with some diseases taking years - perhaps decades - to manifest and are only now demonstrating the importance of improving work-based health conditions and reducing the exposure to hazardous substances.
This risk is not entirely unknown or new however, the "Control of Substances Hazardous to Health" regulations for instance have been in place since 2002, and offer advice and guidance on how employers can limit their employees' exposure to harmful substances and particulates, like:
- finding out what the health hazards are
- providing control measures
- keeping control measures in working order
- providing monitoring and health surveillance in appropriate cases
- planning for emergencies
Much of this guidance is mirrored by the Health and Safety Executive, which highlights employers should consider the following factors when planning and reacting to exposure to hazardous particulates:
- wearing PPE as necessary
- using control equipment
- following hygiene procedures
- warning supervisors if anything appears to be wrong
The advice seems straight forward but many of the dangers still exist because the technology employers and employees are relying on to keep them safe is not up to the challenge.
Finding out what particular health hazards exist in a given environment can be investigated or assumed based on experience of what would be expected within certain environments; whether it be exposure to coal dust or gas for instance.
But this fails to allow for the prospect of the unexpected, which is always a major risk when dealing with unpredictable and hazardous environments when the unknown or unanticipated threat can become real very quickly.
Monitoring the environment
Carrying out monitoring simply to meet the minimum safety standards and requirements of regulation has the potential to leave employees open to severe health risks.
Traditional mandated monitoring has often required no more than a supervisor to carry out site surveys at given intervals - every few hours for example - to take readings or to collect samples from filters and send them away to be analysed and sent back – methodologies determined by the available technologies.
The gaping health hole within this method is that it gives an extremely limited, and potentially misleading, overview of the real picture within the space.
For instance, the readings could be taken at the start or end of a shift (not out of the question when trying to minimise disruption) but these readings are taken at a time when work is at a lower level so the dispersal and presence of dangerous substances may be significantly lower than is typical during peak activity.
It doesn't highlight the levels workers are being exposed to whilst they're actually working and at the point when they could be put at a much higher risk.
When reporting to the HSE, the levels may look safe - the reality can be very different.
This is where real-time monitoring has become essential - and we believe should be standardised - within these dangerous environments.
By hooking real-time particulate monitors to a series of alarms and information panels through a working area, the actual state of particulates in the air can be monitored and workers advised to wear appropriate PPE, or even evacuated if necessary if particulate levels reach a higher than acceptable level.
Productivity vs safety
Without the ability to monitor the exposure to hazardous substances and particulate levels in real-time, operations were left with the choice of equipping their employees with restrictive PPE equipment no matter the levels of materials in the area, or relying on the interval monitoring results to provide guidance on the level of PPE necessary - neither of which is very effective.
By having access to real-time levels of particulates and hazardous substances, operations can plan their employee safety policy far more effectively - both for productivity and cost - and ensure employees are given the optimal level of safety and protection equipment needed to meet the risks of the environment.
This kind of monitoring equipment also reduces the chances of false readings and false alarms (more details on that later) which can cause evacuations of areas only for it to be discovered that levels were within the correct limits and devices were reacting to an unexpected anomaly.
Keeping equipment working
Maintaining laboratory-grade equipment within some of the most hazardous and dangerous environments of the modern workplace is one of the biggest challenges facing heavy industries.
Finding the balance between developing equipment which is precise enough to offer actionable results with a robust hardware build which can sustain brutal environmental factors is not easy.
Dust and particulate monitors for instance largely rely on the use of pumps and filters to pull in and filter out certain sized particulate and dust molecules and identify what is in the atmosphere.
But when installed in dirty and humid conditions - which most mining or tunnelling and even some industrial environments are - these filters and pumps can quickly get clogged and malfunction or stop working altogether.
The results can vary from false alarms and delays while the equipment is checked and cleared out before work can resume, or that workers continue to work in a dangerous environment with a "safety" device which is no longer reporting on the risks they are being exposed to.
This need to provide equipment which can actually withstand the harsh environments where it is needed is one element which must be dealt with as a matter of urgency.
Those working within hazardous environments continue to put themselves at risk of injury and ill-health on a daily basis, despite steps being taken to ensure they can be protected by real-time monitoring and alarm systems.
But there must be a mind shift within the industries where this equipment is needed towards meeting the moral responsibility, they have to keep employees safe. They must ensure policies and safety procedures are being made based on accurate, reliable and real-time data, rather than snap-shots taken at a certain time of day and in selected locations.
Employees' health deserves better than that.
Given the nature of some of the lawsuits currently being brought by employees who are just now seeing the health implications of being exposed to hazardous substances, organisations and their shareholders should be analysing the available technology and its improving capabilities very carefully in order to protect the value of their businesses.
Results can be compromised, imprecise and delayed at any given time if suitable technologies and procedures are not put in place – essentially risking workers’ long term health and confidence. Read more about how to ensure your workforce is fully protected from hazardous substances in our eBook: