Launch of second phase of Breathe Freely initiative, focusing on occupational lung disease in manufacturing – starting with welding - 25 May 2017

Martin Temple CBE, HSE Chair

Good morning all, and thank you to EEF for hosting today's event. It is great to see the range of organisations represented in the room and I would like to thank BOHS for setting up the 'Breathe Freely' initiative and EEF for instigating this phase in manufacturing with an initial focus on welding.

I'm here to set the scene as to why we must 'act together' and support 'Breathe Freely'. Some of you will know the stats, but they are worth repeating because they are compelling.

Welding is performed in many workplaces in Great Britain involving something like 190,000 workers. This includes professional, skilled welders and many other semi or unskilled welders who carry out welding as part of their job. Welding isn't limited to manufacturing either, you'll see it in construction and elsewhere.

And every year, around 4,000 workers in the manufacturing sector suffer from breathing and lung problems they believe were caused or made worse by work.

Welders can develop work related lung diseases at any age. Asthma, for example, may develop after just a couple of years of exposure and acute irritant asthma can occur after just a single instance of very high levels of exposure.

New cases of occupational asthma are thought to be around 10 times more common among welders than the average for all jobs. And about 10% of those new asthma cases assessed for industrial injuries disablement benefit in recent years were attributed to fumes from stainless steel welding.

Other risks include pneumonia and metal fume fever. There are about 40 to 50 hospital admissions for pneumonia each year attributed to welding. Although most individuals recover, in rare cases this can be fatal.

These conditions will often lead to sickness absence, which will represent a tangible business cost.

So to all unscrupulous employers out there, if they think 'poorly managed welding doesn't affect my bottom line so why bother' – you are wrong! I'm confident no one here falls in to that category.

Unfortunately though, workers in some businesses are still being exposed to high concentrations of fumes and gases, either there are no controls, inappropriate controls, or controls have been provided but are not being used properly.

Employers should of course also be concerned about other debilitating issues that can develop over time if risks aren't managed - links with vapours, gases, dusts and fumes to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) for example or the development of welder's lung.

And HSE has identified welding as one of the top ten causes of work-related cancer, estimated to cause around 150 deaths a year.

So this is a significant workplace activity where we can and must make a real difference to workers health.

We are already starting to see success in the construction industry, where 'Breathe Freely' started, with increased awareness of the occupational lung disease issue and promotion of the appropriate controls.

Tools and resources are being made available for welding too, so please use and promote them. We will also need to see leadership across the sector – including from everyone here today - and in each and every company where welding takes place.

Breathe Freely fits like a glove with the HelpGBWorkWell strategy and the Health and Work strategy. HSE is committed to help delivery alongside industry, BOHS, EEF and you. For example, our inspectors continue to focus on welding as part of their inspection activities, discussing it at around two thirds of manufacturing visits. And more than a third of those manufacturing site visits found a material breach relating to health, so we are targeting well but it shows there are still problems.

I'm sure a good number of people in this room have seen welding in all its glory when done well – but maybe you've also seen it at its fume filled and atmosphere clogging worst. Manufacturing plays an important part in the UK economy, so making welding an attractive career for young people is important. They will want to see it is a healthy profession to enter, as maintaining health becomes a more prominent aspect of working life.

And preventing experienced welders from becoming ill and dropping out work is just as important. Better controlled welding operations are more efficient and produce better quality welds.

Losing staff to illness, short and long term, also creates problems through running light and the cost of recruiting and training etc.

So there are some nasty illnesses, worrying statistics and it has a bad effect on businesses as well as the individual and their families.

What are we all to do?

Well thankfully the solutions to prevent all of this are not rocket science. And if you implement them your skilled workers will be able to maintain high quality work when welding rockets or anything else!

The key to effective control is planning and supervision with consideration given to simple aids to make the use of local exhaust ventilation easier for the welder. Many cost effective forms of ventilation exist whether fixed, portable or on-tool extraction. These are things that should all be considered before respiratory protective equipment, but that might also be required for more hazardous materials.

If you run a business that counts welding among its activities, I want you to double check that you are taking responsibility to prevent ill-health; making sure awareness is being raised and appropriate action taken.

We need your commitment to support Breathe Freely in manufacturing and to provide managers with the tools to recognise bad practice and fix it; ensure employees know when and how to use controls and respiratory protective equipment.

The need for action is clear as are the solutions – some of the challenging aspects are building understanding and changing custom and practice – that's where your leadership and commitment to protecting the health of your workers is vital.

So, to recap - It's preventable, it's a cost, and you can't afford to lose good skilled workers or put off young people considering a career in welding. Businesses no longer allow staff to be in clouds of cigarette smoke, welding fumes should be considered with as much concern.

Make sure you're getting this right – use our resources to check that you have the right controls, and they are being used properly.

Thank you for listening.

Updated 2021-06-23