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Breathe Easy Week

It is the British Lung Foundation’s Breathe Easy Week this week. This is a great opportunity to kick-start conversations around the health and wellbeing risks associated with air pollution, workplace health risks, and the occupational health value of offering regular lung function testing and screening.

Employee health and wellbeing – the challenges of air pollution and occupational cancer

This year’s Breathe Easy Week from the British Lung Foundation runs from 18-24 June. As well as simply being a great thing to support and promote in the workplace, it can be a useful calendar marker to kickstart important conversations around the risks from air pollution and occupational cancer, and the occupational health value of lung function testing.

The week is designed to raises awareness of lung conditions and to support the foundation’s research and campaigning work. For example, the foundation recently highlighted that the average Briton is left feeling short of breath, in fact often gasping for air, six times a week and that even light-to-moderate exercise leaves millions breathless and struggling.

One factor behind this is increasingly sedentary and inactive lifestyles. But air pollution is also increasingly being recognised as health threat in its own right. The government, for example, in May set out a Clean Air Plan which argued that air pollution is now the fourth biggest health threat after cancer, obesity and heart disease, and causes more harm than passive smoking.

The impact of poor air quality and air pollution was also at the heart of chief medical officer for England Professor Dame Sally Davies “annual report” back in March.

Threat of occupational carcinogens

Air quality and pollution is a central part of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health’s occupational cancer No Time to Lose campaign.

In fact, how to tackle the growing threat of occupational carcinogens – exhaust fumes, silica dust, asbestos and so on – was the main talking point of the recent ICOH 2018 health and safety conference.

What, then, should employers be taking away from all this?

First, as already highlighted, Breathe Easy Week could be a good event to engage with and promote within your organisation.

Second, it is important to be mindful of, and promote awareness around, the dangers of air pollution, whether on the daily commute, within the working environment itself or simply within our lives outside of work.

Value of lung function testing

Clearly, the solutions to this will most likely need to be societal and political, but employers can still play their part.

Shifting company cars or fleets to cleaner, lower Co2-emitting vehicles, encouraging less polluting commutes, curbing emissions and/or carbon footprint, and ensuring exposure to air pollutants and carcinogens within the workplace are kept to a minimum can all help.

At a practical level, offering regular lung function testing can also be beneficial in this context, as Dr Lucy Wright, Optima Health’s Chief Medical Officer, explains.

“Lung function testing is, of course, already mandatory in any organisation where employees are at risk of being exposed to hazardous substances. To that end, organisations within sectors such as automotive, healthcare, baking and food production, forestry, welding, cleaning, and beauty, among others, should be offering such testing as standard.

“But even if you’re not within an ‘at risk’ sector, there can be value in offering lung function testing as part of your regular health surveillance. It can help employees to detect whether lung damage at an earlier stage, and also therefore access appropriate medical support earlier. With concerns about air pollution growing generally this can be a valuable addition to the workplace health screening and support you can offer to your workers,” she says.