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For many workers, their jobs can take an unexpected toll on their physical health. An occupational disease can be disruptive, disabling, and even fatal. However, workplaces can take preventive action on respiratory hazards that can lead to mesothelioma, lung cancer, silicosis, asbestosis, and other serious occupational diseases.
Recognizing and preventing these work-related diseases can be more challenging than trying to prevent injuries. Many occupational diseases, including respiratory conditions, are connected to workplace exposures that occurred many years before. It's possible for a worker not to experience immediate health effects such as irritation and coughing and yet develop lung cancer decades later. As well, occupational diseases often result from repeated exposures to invisible gases or particles, rather than from a single event.
Workplaces can take action to identify and address breathing hazards from agents that can lead to lung cancer and other illnesses. Particulates, in a workplace context, most often refers to particles, dust, mist or fumes that are in the surrounding air that workers are at risk of inhaling. Breathing is the most common way by which they enter the lungs. How far the particle gets in the air passages of the respiratory system, and what it does when it is deposited, depends on the size, shape, and density of the material, as well as on its chemical and toxic properties.
The Canadian picture
According to national data from the Association of Workers' Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC), occupational diseases caused 64% (612) of deaths vs. 36% (339) traumatic fatalities in 2017. Keep in mind that these numbers do not include deaths in workplaces not covered by a compensation board (from diseases not accepted to be work-related), illness that are not acknowledged as being associated with a workplace exposure, nor those illnesses that are not reported. Plus, there are thousands more non-fatal illnesses and health impacts, including occupational deafness, dermatitis and asthma.
Cancer Care Ontario and the Occupational Cancer Research Centre estimate that approximately 1,300 cancer cases per year in Ontario are related to exposure to asbestos, diesel engine exhaust, crystalline silica and welding fumes. According to the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development, long latency illnesses, emerging years after exposure to a disease-causing agent, accounted for the largest portion of compensation benefit costs between 2008 and 2017. To address these workplace hazards, the Ministry is conducting an inspection blitz focused on the dusts, vapours and fumes that can lead to the most common fatal occupational diseases: mesothelioma, lung and bronchial cancers, and asbestosis. Focus will be on the construction, industrial, health care, and mining sectors.
Respiratory hazards at construction and industrial sites can include lead dust and fumes; silica dust from cutting concrete or sandblasting; solvent vapours from adhesives, paints, and strippers; isocyanate vapours from spray form insulation and coatings; and carbon monoxide from gas-powered equipment as examples. In health care and community care workplaces, employers should focus on work processes that generate aerosols and the controls that should be in place. Working in a closed underground environment, miners can be exposed to airborne hazards such as diesel exhaust, silica, radon, and arsenic. Many of these exposures have been associated with lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases (including pneumoconiosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
What employers can do
All employers, regardless of worksite or location, can take steps to improve worker safety:
About occupational exposure limits
Occupational exposure limits are the recommended maximum amount and length of time most workers can be exposed to a toxic substance without suffering any known harmful consequences. However, remember a legal limit or guideline (such as an occupational exposure limit) should never be viewed as a line between "safe" and "unsafe". It is important to strive for "as low as reasonably achievable" exposure where possible. Within Canada, the provinces, territories and the federal government list which occupational exposure limits are enforceable under their health and safety legislation. View the legislative references for exposure limits to chemical and biological agents for each jurisdiction. Please note that while you can see the list of legislation for free, you will need a subscription to view the actual documentation.
Workers have a right to be safe on the job. Employers must take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for workers' protection. By identifying solutions for eliminating or reducing respiratory hazards, workplaces can take action now to prevent future harm to workers.
Tips & Tools
Hazards can exist under desks, on the plant floor, in the air and pretty much any place people work. Inspecting the workplace regularly for hazards is an essential part of a health and safety program. Inspections help to prevent injuries and illnesses by identifying and eliminating actual and potential hazards.
Workplace inspections are a pro-active approach in preventing incidents, injuries and illness in the workplace. Everyone has a role to play in keeping workplaces safe and healthy under the internal responsibility system. Workers have a duty to report any health and safety concern to their employer. Employers and supervisors have a duty to address those concerns. Whether they are informal or scheduled workplace inspections not only help ensure compliance with the occupational health and safety acts and regulations, but they also ensure a more effective audit of the internal responsibility system and its occupational health and hafety Management programs.
There's more to a workplace inspection than just looking around. It involves listening to people's concerns, fully understanding jobs and tasks, identifying existing and potential hazards, determining the underlying causes of these hazards, recommending corrective actions, reviewing the progress of the recommendations, monitoring controls for their effectiveness to eliminate hazards. Regular, thorough, workplace inspections by a trained inspection team can help keep workers healthy and safe.
What the inspection should examine
An inspection must examine who, what, where, when and how, and include a careful look at all workplace elements - the environment, the people, the equipment and the process. Particular attention should be given to equipment and items most likely to develop unsafe or unhealthy conditions because of stress, wear, impact, vibration, heat, corrosion, chemical reaction or misuse.
Workplace inspectors should look for biological (e.g. viruses, bacteria, and mould), chemical (e.g. cleaners, adhesives, paints), ergonomic (e.g. repetitive and forceful movements, and computer workstations), safety (e.g. inadequate machine guards, unsafe work practices, unsafe work conditions), and physical hazards (e.g. noise, heat, and cold).
Information needed for the inspection report
The information needed to complete the inspection report is very detailed. Inspectors will need a diagram of the work area, complete inventory lists of equipment and chemicals used, previous inspection reports for the area being inspected, as well as checklists to help clarify inspection responsibilities.
Conducting the inspection
Every workplace should have a schedule detailing when inspections will take place and in which areas, who conducts the inspections, and how detailed the inspections will be. The frequency of planned formal inspections may be set in your legislation. High hazard or high-risk areas should receive extra attention.
While conducting inspections, inspectors must wear personal protective equipment (PPE) where required, and should follow these basic principles:
What's in the final inspection report
To start, all unfinished items from the previous report should be carried over to the new report for follow up. The new report should specify the exact location of each hazard, a detailed description of the problem, the recommended corrective action, and a definite date for correction. A priority level (e.g. major, serious, minor) should be assigned to each hazard to indicate the urgency of the corrective action required.
Follow-up and monitoring
Once an inspection is completed, it's not over. The health and safety committee should review the reports to recommend corrective actions with assigned timelines and responsibilities for the corrective actions where needed and then review the progress of the recommendations. This will help in identifying trends to maintain an effective health and safety program.
This month's feature podcast is A Closer Look at Nonvisible Disabilities. Also, listen to Carbon Monoxide: Odorless, Colourless, and Deadly.
Feature Podcast: A Closer Look at Nonvisible Disabilities
According to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability, 1 in 5 Canadians between 25-64 years of age have at least one disability. That means there are about 4 million adults experiencing limitations - including physical, chronic pain, cognitive, and mental health issues - many of which are not immediately apparent to others. Accommodating workers with these nonvisible disabilities is not just a legal requirement, but it also makes good business sense.
The podcast runs 5:29 minutes. Listen to the podcast now.
Encore Podcast: Carbon Monoxide: Odorless, Colourless, and Deadly
Every year in Canada, hundreds of workers experience carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Many survive, but others are not so fortunate. During the winter months, this odorless, colourless, deadly gas creeps back into the spotlight. The heightened concern is due in part to the increased use of furnaces, space heaters and generators, as we try to escape the cold, but also because of the use of fuel burning tools indoors. Understand the hazards of carbon monoxide and how to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
The podcast runs 7:00 minutes. Listen to the podcast now.
CCOHS produces free monthly podcasts on a wide variety of topics designed to keep you current with information, tips, and insights into the health, safety, and well-being of working Canadians. You can download the audio segment to your computer or MP3 player and listen to it at your own convenience... or on the go!
A lack of civility and respect are often at the root of violence, harassment and bullying issues within workplaces. How do you champion and prioritize a civil and healthy workplace before it gives way to a toxic culture ripe with resentment, rudeness, and violence?
A crucial part of any healthy workplace is a workplace violence prevention program that outlines preventive measures against all forms of harassment and violence - including sexual, domestic and workplace. Whether driven by legislation or motivated by doing the right thing, policies and procedures need to be comprehensive, supported by leadership, and underscored by an environment that values respect, consideration and professionalism.
Gain practical knowledge and leave with tools so you can take action to minimize the potential for harassment and violence in your workplace, in this one-day workshop developed by CCOHS. There are a few seats available for the January 14, 2020 session in Mississauga, Ontario.
Here are some comments from participants at the November 2019 workshop:
"This has reinforced my understanding that there's no 'magic wand' to prevent harassment and given me more tools to work towards how to prevent it. Thank you."
"Great ideas to start conversations, prompts to advance our workplace violence programs."
Regularly inspecting the workplace for hazards is an essential part of a health and safety program. Inspections help to prevent injuries and illnesses by identifying and recording hazards for correction action. Conducting a workplace inspection involves more than just looking around. A carefully planned inspection examines and considers all workplace elements, including the people, environment, equipment and processes.
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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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