Respiratory Disease

A government report has warned of the damage being done to our cardiovascular systems by air pollution while, separately, UK health professionals are calling for the biggest shake-up in air quality legislation in 60 years. The fact this month is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Awareness Month could therefore hardly be more timely when it comes to occupational health and wellbeing.

Employee health and wellbeing – tackling air pollution and workplace respiratory diseases

Particles in air pollution are causing a wide range of damaging effects to people’s cardiovascular systems, a landmark health and wellbeing report has concluded.

The government’s Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants report last month (October) concluded that air pollution can cause damage to the cardiovascular system by increasing blood pressure, making blood more likely to clot, contributing to the build-up of fatty materials inside the arteries, altering the heart’s normal electrical rhythm, and causing inflammatory effects on the cardiovascular system.

The committee’s warning is just the latest in a series of national and global alarm bells being sounded over air pollution and respiratory diseases.

Call for new Clean Air Act

Warnings around air pollution have been sounded in recent months by the World Health Organization, which has said global air pollution is “uniquely damaging” to children.

The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, which represents major bodies including the Royal College of Nursing, the British Medical Association and the BMJ, has called on ministers introduce a new Clean Air Act, amid growing concern about the effects of air pollution on the UK’s health.

And, more specific to workplace health, a study earlier this year in the journal Thorax suggested that more than a fifth (21%) of COPD cases can be attributed to occupational exposures, particularly exposure to biological dust, pesticides, gases, and fumes.

The British Lung Foundation is urging people to use its online breath test tool to check whether they may have COPD, given that, it has argued, millions of people across the UK have the condition but do not know it.

That could certainly be a good idea but, more widely, what should employers be doing to better risk manage for COPD, occupational asthma or workplace-related respiratory conditions?

Regular lung function testing

Offering employees regular lung function testing and health surveillance can be a good first step, advises Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health. This is of course already mandatory in any organisation where employees are at risk of being exposed to hazardous substances.

“Therefore, if you are working or operating within sectors such as automotive, healthcare, baking and food production, forestry, welding, cleaning, and beauty, among others, you should be offering such testing as standard. This can often be delivered via occupational therapists,” Lucy says.

“But, as the British Lung Foundation has highlighted, many people are unaware they have COPD and therefore, even if you are not within an ‘at risk’ sector, there can be value in offering lung function testing as part of your regular health surveillance.

“The earlier lung damage is detected, the sooner appropriate medical support can be sought. More widely in the context of keeping your environment safe, it can be a good idea to check out the resources that have been created by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health as part of its No Time to Lose’ occupational asthma campaign,” she adds.