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New standards to avoid vocational Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

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The Society of Occupational Medicine has today published new standards of care that, if followed, could prevent future cases of a debilitating lung disease that causes many thousands of deaths a year in the UK. 

The majority of the estimated 3 million people living with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) develop the condition from smoking. This condition is predicted by the World Health Organisation to become the third leading cause of death worldwide by 2030. However, for more than 300,000 employees in the UK, developing this serious lung disease is associated with inhaling gases, dusts and fumes in the workplace. The new standards, published today in the scientific journal Occupational Medicine, claim that the majority of these could be prevented in the future if harmful exposures were controlled adequately.

Researchers from the Health and Safety Laboratory, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the COPD Standard Collaboration Group have all agreed the new Standard of Care. Professor David Fishwick, the lead author, said “This new Standard of Care is important because for the first time we have agreed a simple and practical set of guidance to help reduce occupationally related COPD. We continue to develop our knowledge of the causes of this disease and how it can be prevented and treated.  HSE has already dedicated much time and effort to help to reduce the burden of this disease”. A wide range of workers could be affected including those who work in the coal, construction, food, cotton and textile, ceramics industries. The symptoms include breathlessness, persistent coughing and frequent chest infections.

“Many workers at risk of this serious lung disease do not have access to good occupational health advice, and proper risk assessments are not undertaken,” said Dr Alasdair Emslie, President of the Society of Occupational Medicine. ”We need to ensure that employers who work in industries with poorly controlled inhalation risks are supported by expert occupational health advice. Controlling the risks optimally could prevent the 10-15 percent of serious but preventable lung diseases attributable to work. The workplace is also an excellent environment to deliver smoking cessation programmes in working age adults, to further reduce the risks of preventable ill health and improving worker productivity.”

The new standard emphasises the importance of early identification of workers with the condition; the good occupational hygiene practice that employers should put in place, and the importance of taking an occupational history in all patients with possible COPD. The role of education is also highlighted, as workers themselves need to be aware of the hazards and how to prevent or reduce exposure.

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