Healthy Lungs Summit Opening Speech - 22 November 2017

Martin Temple CBE, HSE Chair

Good morning. It's great to welcome so many of you to the Workplace Healthy Lungs Summit.

Workplace ill-health affects every part of society. It includes a wide range of conditions from respiratory disease, muscle and joint problems, mental health issues to long term chronic illnesses, such as cancer.

Nearly one and a half million workers suffer from work-related ill health. This figure is unacceptable and we need to reduce this number and the suffering associated with it.

HSE's focus over the next three to five years is set out in its 19 sector plans and, for the first time, three cross cutting work-related ill health plans.

Our plans for occupational lung disease, musculoskeletal disorders and work-related stress show our commitment to tackling ill health in the workplace and the importance of protecting workers, now and in the future.

The cost to business and the economy from ill health is astronomical. Last year more than 25 million working days were lost due to work related ill health. That's 25 million days that could have been productive and rewarding for the individual and the business, but were lost.

Furthermore, the annual cost of new cases of work related ill health in 2015/16 was £9.7 billion and this excludes long latency illness such as cancer.

HSE wants to help employers and employees to understand health risks in the workplace. We need to improve working conditions and practices through suitable, effective and practical exposure control measures.

We all have a responsibility to notice and recognise the health hazards in the workplace. We must all understand the issues and what we need to do. And, most importantly, we need to act confidently to prevent ongoing exposures.

Today's event will shine a light on one specific area of workplace ill health - occupational lung disease.

There are certain things we do as humans to survive. There is one crucial process we need to undertake that keeps us going every day.  We do it instinctively from the moment we are born, and we do it so often — and without thinking — that it's easy to forget about.  We can go days without water and possibly weeks without food. But we would struggle to survive for minutes without breathing.

Imagine for a moment, the impact of not being able to breathe properly on your life?

The lungs are one of the most important organs in the body. We only have one set to last us a lifetime. Our lungs provide the mechanism for us to breathe and provide much needed oxygen, to fuel the rest of our bodies. They are the only organ in our body that float on water and they breathe in the equivalent of 13 pints of air every minute. That equates to around 440 million breathes in a lifetime.

If your business depended on a machine, with no replacement available, and was required to process something 440 million times in its lifetime, how would you look after it?

If that machine needed a clean, dry environment with good air flow to function properly, free from dusts, gases, vapours and fumes, you would do everything possible to make sure the environment was right. You would want to get the best out of that machine and for it to perform at its optimal level.

Let's consider a business-critical function used by most companies, large and small, today - Information Technology.

IT and specifically data retention is at the heart of modern business strategy. The storage and security of data is often high on a Chief Executive's agenda.  Many businesses now have secure, climatically controlled, dust free environments to maximise the life of their data storage facilities. This approach protects a vital company resource - data.

I ask you …. Would your business expose a machine or your data to an environment that you know would be detrimental to its effectiveness – I would suggest you wouldn't.

Why then, we might ask, do many businesses think differently when it comes to protecting a company's most important asset - its people!

Lungs are a complex and fragile structure that provide us with the very essence of life - oxygen. They are not easy to repair, so duty holders must think about how a workplace environment might damage them.

I have seen for myself the consequences of getting it wrong.

As a young manager I became a duty holder. At the age of 26 I took charge of 9 brick works, 5 quarries and a mine. At that time, the 1974, Health and Safety at Work Act was in its infancy and everyone in the industry saw it as a real challenge.

The jobs in my industry paid well, in part because of the working conditions. There was no shortage of workers wanting to work for us. In the silica brick works, we provided workers with masks (they didn't wear them) to mitigate some of the risk around dust inhalation. This was the mind-set of both management and workers at that time.

I am now on the Board of the NHS trust in Sheffield which has a history of coal, steel and similar brick works. Some of the people just like the ones I worked with then, are now patients at our hospitals.

I was a young manager in a society which didn't fully appreciate, or want to understand, the long-term impact on the people that worked in my industry. Now it is those people who I see in the hospital with varying degrees of occupational lung disease.

I am witnessing for myself the full impact of occupational ill health and that is why I am passionate about preventing it in the future.

I see the consequences of occupation ill health but I can also see how the '74 Act has moved us on immensely, particularly on the safety side of health and safety.

However, the statistics released at the beginning of the month by HSE show we still have a long way to go on health.

In the 21st century we cannot sit back and let another few decades go by, accumulating even more cases of occupational lung disease. We know the cause. We know the controls needed. We know the costs. To do nothing is not an option.

The latest statistics show, the annual number of lung disease deaths estimated to be linked to workplace exposure, would fill 250 double decker buses.

That's 12,000 people who went to work and have paid the price with their lives.

12,000 families whose lives have been altered for ever.

We know from the Labour Force Survey that there are currently an estimated 18,000 annual new cases of self-reported 'breathing or lung problems' caused or made worse by work. A substantial proportion of which may be work-related asthma.

HSE's statistics show that chest physicians cite isocyanates, flour and grain as the most common causes of occupational asthma. The highest rates of new cases are seen in 'vehicle paint technicians' and 'bakers and flour confectioners'.

Keeping pace with change is an important element of preventing workplace exposure. As processes, materials and technical advances bring about new ways of working, employers need to understand any new risks posed to health and safety by these advances. We also need to remind ourselves that many of the old risks are still there, and make sure we manage them properly.

We have a health and safety record to be proud of. Our challenge is how do we continue to improve on this, when the market is changing and new risks posed by new ways of working are constantly evolving.

There are so many new and good ways to control the problems becoming available to us. Innovations such as dust free flour in bakeries and local exhaust ventilation systems for paint workshops, for example.

The industry's challenge is to ensure that businesses, who may not have the support of professional bodies, know about such innovations and make the association between the materials they are using and occupational asthma.

Equally, we must use isocyanates safely in paint spraying. We must ask why we still have cases of asthma caused by this process when solutions are readily available.

There's some great work already underway to tackle ill heath relating to dust and other harmful substances.

Some great examples include the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health's - 'No Time to Lose' campaign and 'Breathe Freely', the British Occupational Hygiene Society initiative.

HSE's role is to prevent work-related death, injury and ill health. The health and safety of workers is at the heart of everything we do. Our Go Home Healthy campaign is an important step for HSE and supports the organisation's operational focus under its Health and Work programme. Following its launch, we will be undertaking three targeted behaviour change campaigns, the first of which will focus on occupational lung disease.

We want to see significant improvement in preventing and controlling exposure, and encourage cross sector leadership on reducing occupational lung disease.

We want to make sure consultants and suppliers provide advice that's fit for purpose and see more cross industry sharing of what works to help the smaller businesses.

Our role in HSE will be to lead, engage and encourage improvement across industries. However, you can rest assured, for those duty holders who do not care about the long-term consequences of occupational lung disease, and, fail to protect their workers, we will step in to use our regulatory powers to hold them to account.

We are all here today because we have a shared interested in managing risk and preventing workers developing occupational lung disease.

I'd like you to take a moment to think about this - what if you were one of the statistics? What if you were suffering from long term lung disease?

We are in a different place today, we have moved on considerably since the 1970's. We have a better understanding of the risks and if we work together, look after our employees, our employees will look after our business.

The British travel writer and novelist Jonathan Raban said "In an underdeveloped country, don't drink the water; in a developed country, don't breathe the air." Let's not have people saying that about Great Britain.

Thank you for listening and I hope, when you leave here today you will continue to play your part in helping Great Britain work well.

Updated 2021-02-23