A ‘work-related disease’ is classified as any illness caused or made worse by factors found in the workplace. This includes many diseases that have much more complex causes, involving a combination of occupational and non-work-related factors.
In line with the EU Strategic Frame on Safety and Health at Work 2014-2020, many companies’ priorities include properly and effectively implementing support services and structures to prevent work related diseases. The aim of this is not only to enhance the lives of individual workers, but also to minimise the cost of work-related illnesses and deaths and to greatly reduce liabilities.
Statistics and data show that accidents in the workplace in the UK have decreased by 25% over the last decade. This will include the likes of slips, trips and falls, falling objects causing injury and injuries caused by unsafe or unsuitable working environments.
Nevertheless, diseases which are work related still account for an estimated 2.4 million deaths across the globe and of these 2.4 million deaths, around 200,000 are in Europe.
Defining Work-Related Diseases
Most people are familiar with workplace and work-related diseases in general with asbestos and asbestosis very well covered in the media and over the years in workplace conversations. However, although asbestos has become synonymous with illnesses, diseases and even deaths in the workplace, there are many more such diseases to be aware of, most of which will be categorised by type.
- Musculoskeletal Disorders – These types affect the body’s structure and function
- Work-Related Cancer – Whereby cancer is caused as a result of the initial illness or ailment, such as in cases of lung cancer caused through asbestosis
- Skin Diseases – Where contact with a specific material or substance subsequently leads to and/ or causes disease
- Stress and Mental Health Disorders – Although not strictly ‘physical,’ these can result from stressful workplaces and work environments as well as if one contacts chemicals which can act as hallucinogens
- Work-Related Diseases from Biological Agents – Where a disease or illness is caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, allergens or toxins contacted directly through one’s line of work
In many cases of workplace diseases and injuries, often during the course of other testing or inspection procedures, such as when undertaking an acoustic testing procedure for a property or a SAP and EPC Statement, other significant issues may come to light.
It may for example occur that when testing the insulation of a property, asbestos is discovered, which left unchecked could harm contractors, or perhaps there is a leak of Carbon monoxide from the boiler which may also harm those working there for a long period of time (and then the subsequent residents.)
Musculoskeletal Disorders and Diseases
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are one of the most common diseases to affect European workers. They affect millions of people and cost employers billions of Pounds and Euros per year. MSDs usually affect the back, neck, shoulders and upper limbs (as the kinds of work which cause them generally tend to involve associated muscles) but in some cases lower limbs may also be affected.
The causes of MSDs include some of the following and usually develop over time:
- Repetitive or forceful movements
- Handling loads, especially when bending or twisting regularly is involved.
- Fast-paced work
- Awkward and static postures
- Prolonged sitting or standing in the same position
- Vibration, poor lighting or cold working environments
In terms of prevention, there is no single solution. However, there are a number of straightforward actions that can be taken to mitigate the occurrence of MSDs which are generally inexpensive. Prevention of MSDs could be as simple as providing a trolley to assist with handling goods or simply providing better chairs for office workers with supports.
Work Related Cancer
Work related cancer accounts for an estimated 53% of all work-related deaths in the EU. Some of the main causes have been highlighted as exposure to carcinogenic materials and substances, exposure to radiation and stress in the workplace. Poor or unsuitable work conditions have been linked to incidences of work-related cancer.
Furthermore, evidence which has recently emerged suggests that occupational exposure to endocrine disruptors, which interfere which interfere with and disrupt hormonal function (such as pesticides) as well as nanomaterials may cause cancer.
Skin Diseases in the Workplace
Occupational skin diseases are those which have been caused by hazards and irritants in the workplace. They are quite common and can have significant effects on the lives of employees.
When it comes to the skin, some of the most common chemical hazards include irritants, sensitising, photosensitising and acnegenic agents. Biological hazards range from bacteria, fungi, viruses, to skin parasites. Physical hazards include repeated rubbing of the same area, mechanical pressure, radiation exposure and temperature.
If appropriate measures are implemented, most diseases can be avoided and even cured. However, when the elimination of exposure appears to be near impossible, it may be necessary for a person to actually change their profession altogether.
Stress and Mental Health Disorders
Statistics estimate that around 25% of European citizens will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime, and 10% of long-term health problems and disabilities can be linked to mental health disorders. Problems with mental health have been shown to have a huge impact on the general quality of life of workers as well as overall productivity in the workplace and therefore the continued success of the company in question.
The amount of work performed and conditions in the workplace can play an active role in peoples’ mental health. Simply taking this into account and making changes in the company could avoid such problems occurring for the workers at risk. The cost of depression on employers in Europe is estimated to be around €118 billion and $83.1 billion in the USA.
Work-Related Diseases from Biological Agents
Biological agents are well known to cause health problems for workers throughout the world. There is an increasing proportion of European workers who are being exposed to infectious biological agents in the workplace. These biological agents including the likes of viruses, fungi, bacteria and parasites will often cause health problems either directly or through exposure to the related allergens or toxins.
Exposure to biological agents in the work place may be linked with illnesses such as cancer, infectious diseases and allergies and some biological agents could also bring harm to unborn babies if pregnant and expecting women are exposed.
Who is at Risk?
Those who are particularly at risk of work-related diseases from biological agents are people who work in healthcare and veterinary services, agriculture, sewage management and laboratories. Workers in these areas may work directly with biological agents such as harmful microbes, often exposed via contact with bodily fluids or soil.
If the source of exposure to a biological agent is known, it should be relatively easy to prevent adverse effects on the health. You could invest in the correct measures to combat exposure such as the correct protective equipment and the correct uniform.