HSE Summary 2017: Occupational Disease Statistics

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently published their annual summary statistics which revealed the burden of occupational illness and disease…

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently published their annual summary statistics which revealed the burden of occupational illness and disease within the UK.

Summary

Whilst accepting that the statistics are in some instances estimates, the care taken by the HSE to ensure they emanate from reliable data sources does allow us to draw broad conclusions and comparisons with previous years.

Occupational lung disease

  • Mesothelioma (2,542 recorded deaths in 2015) accounts for only 20% of the total of 12,000 lung disease deaths annually, with asbestos related cancer and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) combined amounting to over half of this annual figure.
  • Annual deaths due to mesothelioma have increased sharply since 1980 due to a higher level of asbestos exposure. However, the number of annual deaths has now stabilised and is predicted to remain at around 2,500 deaths per year until the end of the decade when numbers are then expected to steadily decline. It is predicted that mesothelioma deaths will drop below 2,000 per year by 2030.
  • COPD contributes to the highest proportion of lung disease-related deaths each year (33%). While smoking is still considered to be the most common cause of COPD, a wide range of vapours, dusts, gases and fumes can contribute to the disease. A recent study, conducted over eight years, has shown that exposure to cleaning chemicals such as bleach can increase the risk of developing COPD by 32%, even when such exposure is limited to only once a week. This may be something that employers wish to look at, including any steps that can be taken to reduce exposure.  
  • Non-asbestos-related lung cancer is currently responsible for close to 2,800 deaths per year. This year, the HSE has warned that approximately 100,000 UK workers are being put at risk due to occupational exposure to diesel exhaust fumes which has been shown to increase the risk of lung cancer by up to 40%. Diesel engines release several carcinogenic substances on combustion which bring a substantial health risk. While diesel exposure is prevalent in everyday life, certain occupations are at a higher risk such as professional drivers, depot and warehouse workers, dockside workers and refuse collectors. Diesel fume exposure is frequently discussed in the press and may be a type of claim that increases in future years.  
  • With regards to occupational asthma, the number of new cases has remained steady over the last decade at around 200 to 300 each year. However, the HSE highlights that this figure is likely to be an underestimate of the true scale as the figures only relate to workers who have been referred to specialist chest physicians. The principal causal agents of occupational asthma remain isocyanates, flour/grain and cleaning products with vehicle paint technicians, bakers, and flour confectioners the most affected occupations. The manufacturing industry in general has experienced a higher than average rate of asthma.

Work Related Musculoskeletal Disorders

  • The industries which experience the highest rates of work related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSDs) are construction, agriculture/forestry, transportation/storage and human health and social work.
  • WRMSDs currently account for 39% of all work related health problems and place a considerable burden on both employers and employees. 8.9 million working days were lost in 2016/17 due to WRMSDs.
  • Whilst a gradual reduction of new cases was seen between 2001/2 and 2010/11, numbers have remained fairly static over the last five years. However, the rate of self-reported WRMSDs has continued to show a downward trend.
  • Nearly half (45%) WRMSDs affect the upper limbs and neck. 229,000 upper limb cases were reported in 2016/2017. Data collected by GP clinics from 2013 to 2015 shows that upper limb WRMSDs tend to be caused by heavy lifting, holding tools for long periods of time, excessive keyboard work, and pulling or shoving heavy loads.
  • WRMSDs in relation to back disorders accounts for 38% of all reported cases.

Occupational stress, depression or anxiety

  • 12.5 million working days were lost due to work related stress, depression, or anxiety in 2016/2017 with nearly half citing ‘workload’ as the primary cause. Other factors cited by workers included tight deadlines, being handed too much responsibility, organisational change and a lack of managerial support. Employers should continue to look at working practices and steps that they can take in conjunction with employees to reduce levels of occupational stress.
  • Overall, stress, depression and anxiety accounted for half of all working days lost due to ill health in 2016/17 with over half a million workers reporting either a new or longstanding issue.
  • Self reported work related stress, depression and anxiety has remained broadly static since 2001.
  • The highest prevalence of stress was found in public service professions. Health and social workers are statistically most likely to report work related stress with administrators and those working in education not far behind. Those working in the skilled trades or as process plant and machine operatives had lower rates of work related stress, depression or anxiety.
  • The HSE statistics also show that an organisation’s size has an impact on the rates of stress, depression and anxiety reported by its employees, with workers experiencing a statistically significantly higher rate of illness in large (250+) workplaces.

Conclusions

Whilst the numbers of both fatal and non fatal workplace injury show a long term downward trend, the headline statistics show a broadly unchanged picture since 2001 in the field of occupational illness and disease.

Although these statistics are, at least in part, a consequence of historical exposure, it appears that any recent improvements in safety, welfare and management standards have had little impact in lessening the burden shared by both employees and employers alike in the field of musculoskeletal disorders and occupational stress.

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