Occupational cancer is estimated to cause as many as 742,000 deaths worldwide each year, with exposure to dusty environments – silica and flour dust and asbestos particularly – especially to blame. With concern also growing around the carcinogenic effects of air pollution and second-hand smoke, not to mention the ongoing need to help smokers quit, employers can use this month’s “Love your lungs” week to promote a range of important occupational health and employee health and wellbeing messages.
Employee health and wellbeing – be proactive about occupational cancer
Next week, 17-23 June, is “Love your lungs” week run by the British Lung Foundation (BLF). Known in previous years as “Breathe Easy Week”, this year’s event is focused on encouraging employees and individuals to take an online breath test as well as raising awareness generally of lung health and lung conditions.
According to the BLF, more than half a million people have now taken the test to see if their breathlessness is something they need to get checked out.
At a practical level, it is a good idea for employers to be engaging with this campaign and promoting it within your workplace. But, more widely, lung conditions and, especially, health and wellbeing issues around occupational cancer, second-hand smoke, smoking itself and air pollution are all issues employers could be being proactive around year-round.
Surveillance and testing
The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, for example, has estimated that cancer caused by work claims at least 742,000 lives a year worldwide, with exposure to asbestos responsible for 100,000. Its “No Time to Lose” campaign aims to raise awareness of occupational cancer and help businesses take action by providing a range of free practical resources.
The Health and Safety Executive, too, has a range of advice and resources on its dedicated occupational cancer webpage and runs regular “dustbuster” health and safety inspection campaigns.
Air pollution and second-hand smoke
More widely, there are growing concerns over the carcinogenic effects of air pollution and second-hand smoke on health and wellbeing.
In May, for example, the British Safety Council called for ambient air pollution to be treated as an occupational health hazard and for outdoor workers to receive better protections, citing research from King’s College London linking to up 36,000 early deaths every year from conditions such as lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
And in April, research published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine argued that around 6,000 people who have never smoked die of lung cancer every year, often because they have been exposed to carcinogens in the workplace, air pollution or second-hand smoke.
Occupational carcinogen exposure accounted for 20.5% of lung cancers in non-smoking men and 4.3% of lung cancers in non-smoking women, it added.
And then let’s also not forget the ongoing need to be using health promotion to encourage those employees who do smoke to quit. Rates of smoking may be a record low levels now in the UK, but that’s not to say it’s “job done” in terms of promoting valuable quit messages in the workplace.
What, then, should employers be doing about this?
First, as Dr Lucy Wright, Optima Health Chief Medical Officer, emphasises, it is simply about being proactive when it comes to managing risk and direct or indirect exposure. This means regular testing and effective health surveillance.
“For employers operating in dusty environments – bakeries and construction especially – it is vital to be proactively risk managing potential exposure to dust. And this can, and should, mean regular testing and health surveillance to ensure the health and wellbeing of employees is properly managed,” she says.
“But, second, when it comes issues such as air pollution, it is about looking at ways to mitigate this, perhaps through investing in lower-emission vehicles, but also ensuring those who, say, are driving regularly for work or working outside fully understand the risks and, again, are being regularly monitored,” she adds