The occupational disease burden
Occupational disease is a big problem. For some workers this can mean they experience life altering and in some cases premature life-ending illness.
In 2011/12 there were an estimated 1.1 million working people suffering from a work-related illness, with around 450,000 new cases of occupational related ill health and a further estimated 12,000 deaths each year caused by past exposures to harmful substances at work.
Traditionally, health issues in the workplace have been, and still are, harder to tackle than safety issues because cause and effect are often not clearly linked.
While some cases of ill health are clearly related to work activity, for others the cause may be less clear. Many serious occupational diseases also have a long period of ‘latency’, some up to 30 years, between exposure and development of ill health and/or disease, making the links even more difficult to establish. This also means that after recognising the problem and making changes in working practices to reduce exposure there may be a long delay before a reduction in the causes of ill health and death are seen.
However, where the link is established and exposure can be measured then interventions and activities aimed at raising awareness and creating behavioural change can work to reduce exposures and prevent ill health and disease.
What’s happening now?
There is already lots of work going on by public, private and third sector organisations to tackle occupational disease. We want to build on this work, by encouraging the promotion and exchange of ideas and the generation of novel initiatives through these web pages and the occupational disease community site.
The focus will be on two key priority areas:
- respiratory diseases (including asthma, COPD and silicosis);
- occupational cancer (from all routes of exposure).
Why these priority areas?
There are many different types of occupational disease including:
- respiratory diseases e.g. asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- skin diseases
- asbestos-related disease
- noise induced hearing damage
- hand-arm vibration syndrome
- musculoskeletal disease
Given the range of diseases and broad scope of industries involved we are focusing on work that is aimed at tackling respiratory diseases and occupational cancers either because there are potentially lots of workers likely to be exposed or there is evidence of a high incidence rate of disease.