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Protect the Hidden Victims of Workplace Hazards

Posted on: September 16th, 2013 by Phil Comments

This September is the 12th anniversary for the 911 attack. It is truly a tragedy for us to remember and commemorate; however, from an occupational health perspective, the tragic story is still going on, as the list of hidden victims keeps expanding.

With the collapse of the World Trade Center, building material such as asbestos and fiber glass were pulverized and spread all over the area. Firefighters, policemen, communication workers, and janitorial workers involved with the clean-up process are exposed to contaminants which are potential carcinogens or may cause permanent lung dysfunction.

However, it was not a long time ago since these occupational hazards were realized by the media and public health authorities, and the recognition and compensation remains to be an issue, which is demonstrated in the video below.

The Hidden Victim of 9/11 (Youtube)

This case reflects the dilemma faced by OHS professionals: On the one hand, the issue of workplace safety has been realized widely, and continuous effort has been put to eliminate them.

On the other hand, occupational diseases, as a result of the chemical, physical and biological exposure at workplaces remains to be unsolved: It is estimated by International Labour Organization (ILO) that almost 80% of fatalities at workplaces are caused by occupational disease. In Canada, many provinces have made great progress in reducing the number of workplace injuries. However, the overall number of work-related deaths remains unchanged. The reason is that deaths caused by work-related disease have increased steadily over the past two decades.

Why is occupational disease not getting the deserved attention in spite of the catastrophic outcomes?

First reason is that compared with occupational injuries, whose cause could be identified by accident investigation following certain procedures, the identification of occupational disease is much more complex. Of course we can indicate some chemicals as being “toxic”, but the definition of “toxic” is so broad that it hardly makes any sense in associating the certain disease with exposure. Take occupational cancer as an example, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) evaluated the carcinogenicity of around 900 chemicals; however, consider the numerous chemicals that exist at workplaces, those evaluated are just the iceberg above surface.¬†

The second reason for the lack of awareness is that occupational diseases seldom develop on a single day. Take occupational cancer for example: cancer is a chronic disease, the latent period between exposure and disease occurrence could be decades. This is a huge barrier when linking disease with exposure.

With so many gaps remaining to be filled, preventative approaches have been made to protect workers from the emerging risk of occupational risk: provincial regulations have set up exposure limits for the chemical, physical and biological hazards, and for those with potential to induce cancer and other permanent damage, it is the employer’s responsibility to keep the exposure level “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” (i.e. ALARA).

As part of the due diligence for employers, initiating an air testing is the fundamental step to prevent the occupational disease!

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