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Issue 11: January 2000


Picture of Dr Paul Davies

Dr Paul Davies, Director of HSE's Hazardous Installations Directorate (HID)

This is the 11th issue of this newsletter but the first published since I took over from Jim McQuaid as HSE's Chief Scientist. So I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the debt owed to Jim for his work in overseeing the development of HSE's arrangements for commissioning and managing its mainstream science and technology programme. The challenge in the future will be to ensure that these arrangements remain fit for purpose, and in particular that they take account of changes in HSE's business needs and in wider government policy. With the former, the key drivers for change will be the need to support HSC's Strategic Plan and the findings emerging from the Deputy Prime Minister's strategic appraisal of health and safety, " Revitalising Health and Safety." In particular the need to put more effort into obtaining a better understanding of the social, economic and behavioural factors that influence people's attitude to establishing and maintaining a healthy and safe working environment. On wider government policy the main influence will be the forthcoming White Paper on Science and Innovation, which is expected to concentrate on measures aimed at improving the UK's innovation performance. Amongst other things, it is likely to emphasise the importance of improving public confidence in science, for government departments to take a forward-looking strategic approach to science and technology activity and to increase the commercialisation of public sector research.



The MRMD is produced annually by HSE's Research Strategy Unit (RSU). It serves to increase general awareness of HSE's research activities within the Mainstream Research Programme and to inform HSE's wide range of current and potential contractors of our research interests, forward priorities and of how HSE identifies and meets its research needs. The Mainstream Research Programme covers research interests both on and offshore and these interests are represented by four Portfolio Research Groups (PRGs), each of which has a number of member Subject Research Groups (SRGs). The MRMD describes HSE's research in the context of its SRGs. For each SRG: the areas of interest and scope; the current research activities; and the future research priorities are described. Planned projects are also listed for a number of SRGs to indicate work which HSE has already decided to commission in the coming year. For the third year running, the document feature a 'competition of ideas'. Broad ideas for research are presented against which contractors are invited to submit research proposals within a specified period. Previous response to the competition has been good, with HSE receiving over three hundred proposals in response to the 56 issues featured in last year's exercise, and over 20% of these proposals were successful. The 2000/2001 edition of the MRMD will be published on 11 February 2000 and will be available from HSE's RSU as a free publication. All individuals, consultants and companies that received or requested a hard copy of the 1999/2000 document will automatically be sent a copy of the latest edition. Although HSE's Mainstream Research Programme covers safety, hygiene and health risks arising from work activities, economic and social research will, for the first time, be covered in a brief supplement to the competition of ideas. This will be produced later in the year and will be published on HSE's Web Site only. A press release will provide further details of this at the appropriate time.


(Contractor: HSL)

Although regulations and guidance exist which cover office environments, Local Authority Enforcement Officers, the TUC and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health Officers have all proposed that telephone call handling centres present a unique working environment. An initial scoping study, commissioned by HSE and carried out by HSL, confirmed that greater knowledge of the health risks in the context of call centre work was needed. The study also indicated that some current work practices may have a detrimental effect on the psychological and physical well-being of call centre employees. The aim of this project is to examine current working practices across a broad range of call centres, in terms of their location, sector type, size and maturity. The main physical and psychological health risks associated with call centre working will be investigated as will the potential measures available to reduce these. This work will enable HSE to develop sound guidance, for the industry and enforcement officers, based on risk reduction and best practice.


(Contractor: Imperial College London)

Allergies to occupational sensitisers are frequently reported, particularly the onset of occupational asthma. However, little is known about safe exposure levels. Almost 1000 cases of occupational asthma were reported in the UK in 1994. Despite an increased awareness of occupational asthma and the factors which contribute to its aetiology, the incidence of the disease does not appear to be decreasing. This project intends to examine existing data collected for a group of laboratory animal workers in order to propose a low level of airborne rat urinary allergen which minimises risk. A risk assessment process will be developed to serve as a model. This will then be validated using additional data sets for workers exposed to airborne flour allergens. These data sets were collected at the same time and in the same way as those for the laboratory animal workers.


(Contractor: South Bank University)

Previous research has recognised training as an important element in supporting the effectiveness of safety representatives in different situations of worker involvement in the UK and North America. However, there is little research which directly examines the impact of health and safety training on workplace activities of health and safety representatives. This work will evaluate the impact of training on the activities of health and safety representatives and its role in providing support for their activities. The work will also identify changes in workplace health and safety which result from interventions by health and safety representatives who have received training. This project is timely as Ministers have asked HSC/E to review arrangements for employee consultation and suggest ways to enhance the role of health and safety representative training. HSE is supporting a related project to revise TUC training material (via HSE's Training Initiative Budget) and the TUC are taking initiatives to link their training to qualifications offered by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH).


(Contractor: University of East Anglia)

Existing procedures for producing chemical Safety Data Sheets (SDS) have tended to be developed on a case-by-case or chemical supplier basis, resulting in documents which appear in a variety of non-standard formats. The sheets contain extensive scientific or technical jargon which is either too complex for the typical user to understand (particularly workers in small or medium scale enterprises (SMSs)), or which embed potentially useful information on safety, health and self protection amongst other less relevant material. There is an urgent need to develop improved methodologies for designing such workplace risk communications, drawing on the state-of-the-art in risk communication practice and research, taking a genuinely user-centred approach to design and focusing upon the relevance of what information is communicated. The feasibility of applying the 'Mental Models Approach' to the design and evaluation of risk communications will be examined through a study of messages relating chemical risks to workers in SMEs. The study will also take preliminary account of the wider social and cultural issues involved.


(Contractor: Wardell Armstrong)

Safe operation at many British coal mines depends on the effectiveness of arrangements to drain flammable gas from the rock strata before it can mix with air ventilating the working face and create an explosion hazard. The accepted standard work of technical guidance on methane drainage dates from 1980 and does not adequately cover the control of gas on modern high production retreat coal faces or take into account recent innovations overseas. The aim of this project is to review the state-of-the-art of methane drainage and its application to British coal mines. Recommendations will then be made on safety enhancements related to methane drainage.


(Contractor: HSL)

Rollcages (mobile storage units) are most often used when transporting goods, foodstuffs, etc. from warehouse to retail premises. They have been the frequent cause of accidents in such premises. HSE, Local Authority Inspectors, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health Professionals and the TUC have all highlighted the need for research which would deliver the safe design and use of rollcages.

Led by HSE's Local Authority Unit, this research project aims to identify the main causes of rollcage accidents and to provide advice, both to enforcement officers and the industry, on how to reduce the risk of accidents involving rollcages through improved design and their safer usage.



(Contractor: Institute of Occupational Medicine)

Cleaning chemicals are used widely throughout the catering industry for a variety of purposes, ranging from everyday general cleansing to specialist applications, such as in-line cleaning of dispensers. Many different formulations are used, including detergents, sterilisers, bactericides, preservatives and disinfectants (including surfactants). These substances may contain acids, alkalis, phenolic compounds, oxidising or reducing agents as well as various other chemicals.

The health risk caused by the use of these chemicals depends on the nature of the exposure together with other factors, including concentration of the chemical, method of application/use, and the temperature of the cleaning solution. Many of the cleaning chemicals used in the catering industry are corrosive and can cause skin and eye burns. Some may cause dermatitis or skin irritation, whilst exposure to others may result in asthma or other respiratory conditions. The nature of cleaning work suggests that exposures, especially skin contact, may be difficult to control. This difficulty is further compounded by the transient nature of a large proportion of the workforce within the catering industry, many of whom are unlikely to be fully aware of the hazards and risks involved in the use of cleaning chemicals.

This investigation was carried out to study the extent of accidents and ill health related to the use of cleaning chemicals within the catering industry. The most commonly used cleaning chemicals were identified through discussions with suppliers, manufacturers, catering and cleaning companies and trade associations. The extent of workplace injury and disease was established from two sources: reports lodged with enforcing authorities as required by RIDDOR; and the reports published annually in the Local Authority Report on Health and Safety in Service Industries. Representatives from catering and associated organisations were interviewed to ascertain their perception of risks associated with the use of cleaning chemicals. From these interviews, although dermatitis was recognised as a general problem within the catering industry, slips, trips, cuts and burns were considered to be of greater concern than the potential risk associated with the use of cleaning chemicals. Many catering employees were found to receive both induction and refresher training in the workplace. However, the emphasis of this training was strongly on food hygiene and safety, with the health and safety of operators taking second place. Similarly, inspections of catering premises also tended to focus on food safety aspects within these workplaces.

From the RIDDOR reports and case studies, many incidents involving cleaning chemicals were found to be the result of simple mistakes, showing a lack of operator understanding and a lack of safety consciousness towards the safe use of these products. Specific and targeted education and training would help workers in this sector fully appreciate the hazards and perceive the risks involved in using cleaning chemicals and would help to improve the health and safety of these workers.


(Contractor: WS Atkins)

The FORM/SORM method (alternatively referred to as the Most Likely Failure Point (MLFP) method) was applied to the QRA of an industrial installation containing chlorine. As part of the work, techniques were developed whereby measured frequency distributions of atmospheric variables related to the prediction of toxic dose (such as wind speed, wind direction and atmospheric stability) could be represented and manipulated in ways required by the method.

The predictions of the MLFP method have been compared with those of benchmark calculations for a number of cases. Reasonable agreement between risk estimates were obtained. The MLFP method was shown to provide useful estimates of the sensitivity of the calculated risk to the probability distributions assigned to each uncertainty variable. In addition to the basic QRA, the method provides a built-in sensitivity study, which can be used to guide further analysis. The MLFP method can be used as an alternative to, or in support of, conventional QRA calculations.


(Contractor: University of Liverpool)

During this project, three separate phases of work were carried out in which the Merseyside Accident Information Model (MAIM) was used to collect data from subjects attending the Royal Liverpool University Hospital for the diagnosis and treatment of occupational industries. MAIM collects detailed descriptions of accidents and allows the investigation of the causes of accidents by identifying the first unforeseen events perceived by the subjects.

Phase 1 was an analysis of data on both occupational and other injuries collected during 1992/93. In particular, this study showed that manual handling injuries (MHIs) occurred mainly during paid work and occurred less frequently during leisure or domestic pursuits. Phase 2 examined subjects with MHIs attending fracture clinics. Only 180 of 1326 subjects studied had sustained MHIs, indicating that MHIs are not the main contributor to this type of clinic. Phase 3 of the project collected data from a cohort of patients attending the Accident and Emergency Department and this sample is believed to be representative of occupational injuries in Liverpool. MHIs were identified by four observers reading the subject's accident history, and the analysis is based on 335 subjects in a total injured population of 978. Subjects were questioned about absence from work to identify those reportable injuries causing absence from work of at least four days. Interviewing in a hospital accident and emergency department has proved an effective method of collecting information on workplace accidents.

Industries most frequently linked with MHIs were construction and service industries. Occupations most frequently represented were labourers, sales/shop assistants and drivers. Body movements contributing to MHIs included 'holding with both hands', 'standing on', 'reaching in front' and 'carrying'. 'Moving backwards' was especially associated with MHIs involving trolleys, which were one of the most frequently occurring environmental objects. In addition to education and training, design changes to packaging to include better handholds and roughened surfaces were identified as possible ways to reduce the occurrence of MHIs.


(Contractor: UMIST)

The behaviour of accidental releases of sulphur trioxide and oleum was investigated from a theoretical point of view. When accidentally spilled these substances create liquid pools that can either boil or evaporate or even solidify. Sulphur trioxide vapour and, in some conditions, sulphuric acid vapour will evolve from the pool. Both vapours will start reacting with atmospheric moisture in a very complicated way. The final product of these reactions is sulphuric acid mist, which presents a major hazard to humans and to the environment. Any humans or animals in contact with the mist suffer effects ranging from irritation of the airways to death, depending on the level of exposure.

Previous mathematical modelling attempts have treated such releases in an unrealistic way, ignoring a number of phenomena that occur in the liquid and vapour phases. A new model has been developed which takes into account all these significant interactions. The model has been implemented in a computer code in Microsoft Visual Basic 5.0 (professional edition) and has been used to examine a number of different release scenarios. The model works well, and a number of useful conclusions and observations on the behaviour of the investigated releases have been made. Pool behaviour is governed by the amount of water available for reaction; free ground water is usually the main water source. The wind speed also has a relatively strong effect on pool behaviour. In most cases the generated cloud behaves as a dense gas cloud containing sulphur trioxide vapour, sulphuric acid vapour and sulphuric acid aerosol. Numerous processes and interactions occur during this initial stage and only after some distance downwind will the cloud become passive. The wind speed, the vapour evolution rate from the pool, the atmospheric stability class and the relative humidity are the parameters which affect cloud behaviour most strongly.


All these titles are available as priced publications from HSE books or from DIAS for HSE staff.

Added to web site March 2000

Updated 2021-03-30