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January 2009 - Volume 7, Issue 1

In the News
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Radon On the Radar

You can't see it, smell it or taste it, however radon is a very real, radioactive gas that occurs naturally in the environment, particularly in some geographic regions. Formed by the disintegration of radium (a decay product of uranium), the gas can move freely through the soil enabling it to escape to the atmosphere or seep into buildings. People can be exposed to radon in homes, workplaces, schools, and other places.

In open air, radon gets diluted to very low concentrations and poses a negligible threat. When released into a building through cracks in the walls and floors, or through gaps around pipes and cables, however, it can accumulate to high levels. Basements and crawl spaces tend to have the highest concentrations of radon because these areas are closest to the source and tend to be poorly ventilated. Therefore, people who spend much of their time in basement rooms at home or at work could have a greater risk for exposure.

In high enough concentrations or with prolonged exposure, radon can cause lung cancer. It is the second-leading cause of lung cancer after smoking. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S., radon claims about 20,000 lives in the U.S. each year. The Canadian Medical Association Journal says radon is estimated to cause about 10% of lung cancers, or more than 2,000 cases each year in Canada.

To raise awareness of this health hazard, promote radon testing, and advance the use of radon-resistant construction practices, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has declared January "National Radon Action Month."

Health Risks
Radon emits alpha particles and produces several solid radioactive products called radon daughters. Most radon daughters become attached to tiny dust particles in indoor air. Some don't. A fraction of both attached and unattached radon daughters are deposited into the lungs, where they emit particles that are absorbed in the nearby lung tissues. Since alpha particles cannot penetrate more than a fraction of a millimeter into the tissue, the damage is confined to the lung tissue in the immediate area.

The degree of risk from radon depends on how much radon is present, how long the person is exposed, and whether or not the person smokes or is exposed to second-hand smoke. Since smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer and radon is the second, the combination of inhaling radon gas and exposure to smoke significantly increases the risk. To further compound the problem, there are no warning signs of radon exposure.

Scientifically, there has been no direct evidence linking indoor radon exposure in buildings to an increased risk of lung cancer; the link is based mainly on data from a study of lung cancer mortality among uranium miners and other workers exposed to very high levels of radon daughters. Regardless, the EPA recommends radon testing in the home or workplace. It's the only sure way of knowing how much of this imperceptible gas is present in your home or workplace.

Radon Detection and Control
You can't detect the presence of radon with any of your senses, but you can test a home or workplace fairly easily for the presence of radon, either with a do-it-yourself-kit or by hiring professionals to perform long term testing. Health Canada offers a Guide for Radon Measurements in Public Buildings.

Once radon has been detected, exposure must be controlled.

  • Air filtration can decrease the radon daughter concentration as much as 90 percent by removing the airborne particles that the radon daughters are attached to.
  • Increasing ventilation reduces indoor radon levels. Opening a window can help lower the radon level by allowing the inside air to escape and letting fresh air in.
  • Caulking and sealing cracks and holes in basement floors and walls help stop the release of radon from the ground into the building. Painting basement floors and wall surfaces with epoxy paints also helps reduce radon emission.
  • Where radon levels are high because uranium mill tailing was used as landfill, it may be necessary to replace the fill, or reduce the radon concentration by coating the surface of the building foundation.

Invisible but detectable, radon exposure is a health hazard that can be prevented. A simple test could ease your mind and preserve your health. Start your new year off on the right track by putting radon on your radar.

More Information
More about radon and units of measuring radon levels, CCOHS

Guide for Radon Measurements in Public Buildings, Health Canada

Radon, US Environmental Protection Agency

Hazard Alerts
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Putting Out the Fire - Before It Starts

Alerts Urge Caution and Prevention

Recent alerts issued by the provinces shine the spotlight on two important safety hazards. In British Columbia (BC) a teacher suffered first-degree burns when solvent in a parts washer burst into flames and caused an explosion. In Nova Scotia people are being cautioned on the use of portable (under desk) electric heaters at work during the cold season.

British Columbia
A shop teacher was using a parts washer to clean a lawn mower part. The parts washer, designed for a water-based cleaning solution, was filled with a petroleum-based combustible solvent instead. A plugged drain in the washer resulted in a low level of solvent in the reservoir, which allowed the immersion heating element to become exposed. The solvent overheated and burst into flames, causing an explosion. The teacher fought the fire with a chemical extinguisher, but his shirt caught fire. He wasn't wearing any personal protective equipment and sustained first-degree burns.

WorkSafeBC recommends these safe work practices:

  • Establish and enforce safe work procedures for using parts washers, including the following:
    • Use only the cleaning solutions recommended by the manufacturer.
    • Wear the appropriate eye, face, and hand/forearm protection.
    • Follow the manufacturer's safety and operating instructions.
    • Ensure that the fusible link on the lid is intact.
  • Ensure that material safety data sheets (MSDSs) are readily available for all hazardous and flammable substances used in the workplace.
  • Follow all warning labels posted on equipment or machinery.
  • Provide workers with the information, training, and supervision necessary to ensure their safety when using equipment.

Nova Scotia
The colder winter temperatures can also create a cooler indoor environment. Some people will bring portable electric heaters to work and place them under their desks for additional warmth.

The safety concerns associated with using portable heaters include worn electrical cords, overloading electrical circuits and power bars, or using extension cords that don't have the proper power rating. There is the risk of materials catching fire that are too close to the heater, as well as the risk of burning yourself on an uncovered or unprotected heating element.

Nova Scotia cautions that the use of portable electric heaters to supplement the regular heating should be considered a last resort, and offers these preventive measures:

  • Before using a portable electric heater find out if there is a problem with the heating system and if it can be corrected.
  • Get supervisor/employer agreement before using a heater.
  • The heater should be a radiant heater not more than 200 watts.
  • The heater should have no fans or moving parts and should be approved by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) or similar.
  • Follow the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Turn the heater off when away from it.
  • Plug the heater directly into a wall or cubicle electrical outlet (do not use extension cords).

Follow these safe work practices and take the preventive steps to help keep you and your workplace safe from harm.

Read the full alert from WorkSafeBC.

Read the full alert from NS Labour and Workforce Development.

Read how to work safely with flammable and combustible liquids from CCOHS.

Partner News
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Protecting Restaurant and Hospitality Workers in the EU

In the European Union (EU), almost 8 million people make a living by working in hotels, restaurants or in catering businesses (the HORECA sector). Made up mostly of small businesses employing 10 people or less, this sector plays an important role in creating jobs and in the EU economy overall.

The HORECA sector is considered to be a good way to enter the working world, and its workforce tends to be comprised of young, female, and lower skilled individuals. They often work long, irregular hours performing physically demanding tasks. There are many, varied risks to these workers' safety and health, resulting from prolonged standing, carrying and lifting, exposure to high noise levels and working in too hot or cold environments. Workers also suffer cuts and burns, trips, slips and falls, and come into contact with dangerous substances. The work can be monotonous, stressful and draining. Despite the demanding working conditions, the sector does not have above-average rates of accident and disease.

Recognizing the importance of managing the risks and preventing the causes of accidents and ill health, the EU produced a report focusing on the HORECA sector. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work set out to make information available relating to occupational health and safety in the sector and to provide an overview of good practices at both the policy and workplace levels. The report examines policy initiatives and activities that have been undertaken across the EU to reduce the risk to workers' health and safety, and identifies success factors. The prevention report discusses how employers and employees can work together to improve workplace safety and health and highlights key risk prevention measures.

Download the report: Protecting workers in hotels, restaurants and catering.

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Helping You Stay the Course

Educating workers is an important part of creating safe and healthy workplaces, and it can be an ongoing challenge to ensure staff have the knowledge and information they need to work safely. E-courses are a convenient way of providing and managing worker education and can result in cost and time savings, higher retention of information, and ultimately, healthier and safer workplaces. The CCOHS e-learning program offers more than 40 courses on a wide range of topics related to workplace health and safety.

Two recently released courses from CCOHS deal with the basics of developing an effective occupational health and safety program, and implementing a hazard prevention program in federally regulated workplaces.

Developing an Occupational Health & Safety Program
An occupational health and safety (OH&S) program is a proven way to plan and manage your organization's efforts to prevent injuries and illnesses in the workplace. CCOHS' Developing an Occupational Health & Safety Program provides guidance on where to start, and how to build an effective program suitable for your organization and regulatory environment. The one hour course stresses the importance of senior management commitment and effort from everyone in the organization. It is recommended for anyone just starting to develop an OH&S program, or who wants to improve an existing one.

Federal Hazard Prevention Program
The Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations requires every federally-regulated workplace to implement and maintain a hazard prevention program (HPP). This includes federal government agencies, crown corporations, the communications (cable and telecom) and banking sectors and interprovincial transportation (trucking, railways, and airlines). CCOHS' Federal Hazard Prevention Program course explains in practical terms how to go about designing a hazard prevention program appropriate for your workplace. It explains how to conduct a gap analysis, identify and assess hazards and put preventative measures in place. Finally it describes how to evaluate the overall effectiveness of your hazard prevention program. The course is recommended for managers, supervisors, and human resources and health and safety professionals working in federally-regulated businesses and organizations.

All CCOHS e-courses include case studies, review quizzes, and the ability to ask questions anytime. Those who score at least 80% on the final exam earn a certificate of completion.

Pricing and registration for the courses is available on the CCOHS website.

The Health and Safety Report, a free monthly newsletter produced by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), provides information, advice, and resources that help support a safe and healthy work environment and the total well being of workers.

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© 2009, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety