Occupational Health among Mill Workers: Risk, Exposure and Prevention

Did you know that mill workers are exposed to life threatening hazards which are invisible killers?

Did you know that most of the catastrophic accidents that we have seen in mills are actually preventable?

These are the questions I came up with while reading WorkSafeBC’s incident investigation report regarding the Burn Lake’s Babine sawmill explosion, which killed 2 workers and injured another 20. Wood dust (accumulated into high levels and dispersed into a “cloud” suspended in the air), ignition sources, and oxygen in the air constituted the necessary components of the fire triangle, which directly lead to the catastrophe.

If we take a step back and think of any workplace, how confident are we in saying that “our company is a pretty safe place to work”?

Have we eliminated all of the potential hazards such as fire triangles, explosions and chemical exposure?

Sawmill Workers’ Exposures to Occupational Hazards

  • Wood dust:  Short-term exposure to wood dust could be irritating to the skin, respiratory tract and eyes. Wood dust is also proven to be associated with decreased lung function and asthma.
  • Spores, fungi, microbes and endotoxin: These microorganisms and bio-chemicals are irritants to the nose, throat and eyes. They might lead to COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and aggravation of pre-existing conditions such as asthma.
  • Wood preservatives: Certain chemicals used for wood preserving are classified as carcinogens by IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) and ACGIH (American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienist), which means that they have the potential to cause cancer. Examples of such chemicals are pentachlorophenol (a.k.a. PCP), creosotes. Some of the chemicals are corrosive to skin, eyes and respiratory tract, such as phenol.
  • Heavy metals: Sawmill workers in the maintenance department can be exposed to heavy metal from their welding, grinding and knife-sharpening activities. Some sorts of heavy metal can decrease lung function, while others may cause cancer.
  • Evaporated chemicals in pulp cooking: Examples of such chemicals are ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, sulphur dioxide and methyl mercaptan. Health concerns over such chemicals are short-term acute toxicity (i.e. IDLH, Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health).

An Example of Elevated Risk

Safety Solutions at Work’s occupational hygienist,  Phillip Chen, completed a detailed epidemiology study which associated COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) with endotoxin exposure among sawmill workers. Endotoxin is produced by bacteria grown on wood.  

In the wood processing industry, endotoxin is released along with wood dust when certain tasks are performed, such as cutting, sawing and trimming, and then can be inhaled by sawmill workers. After adjusting for confounder such as age, race, smoking and lagging time (20 years), based on the Poisson regression model, the risk of COPD among highest exposed group doubled that of the reference group (Relative Risk 2.09, 95% CI 0.9 – 4.83).

Currently ACGIH, U.S. OSHA and WorkSafeBC is not regulating endotoxin. Phil is hoping that the disease model he built can serve as a piece of evidence in setting up exposure limits for endotoxin to protect the respiratory health of sawmill workers.

Seeking a Solution from Safety Solutions at Work’s

Based on WorkSafeBC’s incident investigation report, the tragic accident of the Babine sawmill in Burns Lake was preventable by eliminating any element of the fire triangle. If the wood dust is not accumulated into high concentration, or if the wood dust is not dispersed in a way to be explosive, then we won’t have to pay the lesson at the cost of two workers’ lives. Similarly, for the chemical and biological exposures which could lead to occupational diseases, as an employer, you can demonstrate your due diligence by starting an occupational hygiene survey to evaluate the potential hazard level. Here is  Safety Solutions at Work can help you:

  • As an OHS consulting company, Safety Solution at Work aims at promoting overall health and safety in different industries. We believe that risk assessment should be the foundation of risk management.
  • The MSc. thesis research project of our occupational hygienist Phillip Chen was focused on the respiratory health among sawmill workers in BC, as part of the UBC Sawmill Study. He is passionate about protecting workers from the negative heath effects of heavy metal and endotoxin exposure. He is dedicated to conducting occupational hygiene risk assessments in mills across this province.
  • If a company is not sure of the chemical hazards your workers encounter, we can work with you on a hazardous material inventory for your plant.  Air testing is the very first step in creating a safe and healthy work environment, and we can work with you to achieve it!
  • We can also assess other risks in the mills, such as noise, vibration and explosive dust.

You are the voice of safety in your workplace.  If you have concerns about hazards, it is your responsibility to speak up.  Let your supervisors, safety committee members, management representatives and shop stewards know about your concerns.  Speaking up is the first step to take action.

Posted on: January 23rd, 2014 by Phil Comments

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