Working in all kinds of environments poses a variety of risks. Regardless of what sector you work in, learning about what occupational diseases are and how they can be inflicted is important in order to raise awareness of the health-related risks involved in work and prevent these illnesses in the long run.
In this article, we answer the question ‘what is an occupational disease’ as well as shed light on which sectors individuals may be more likely to sustain an occupational illness, what a reportable occupational disease is, their symptoms and how they can be prevented and treated.
The definition of an occupational disease, also referred to as an occupational illness or work-related illness, is an illness that is solely or predominantly a result of exposure to harmful substances or harmful tasks during work. They are considered an ‘epidemic that is ignored’, and are a significant and prevalent problem amongst the workforce globally.
The most recent UK figures, supplied by the Health and Safety Executive in its most recently published Health and Safety at Work statistics for Great Britain 2021, showed that an estimated 1.7 million workers are suffering from a work-related illness caused by occupational tasks. In 2018/2019, around 497,000 employees suffered from a new incident of work-related ill-health.
According to the Health and Safety at Work statistics for Great Britain 2019, in 2018/2019, occupational illness contributed to 23.5 million working days being lost, and unfortunately, in some cases, occupational diseases can have significant life-changing impacts. Annually, 13,000 deaths occur that can be linked to previous exposure to substances at work that have contributed to an occupational disease, with roughly 12,000 of these 13,000 attributed to lung cancer specifically.
The sectors that are considered to have the highest risk for employees suffering from a work-related illness are the construction, retail, manufacturing, wholesale and agricultural industries.
These sectors consistently display higher levels of occupational illness and non-fatal injury incidents when compared to other industries. For example, according to the Agriculture, forestry and fishing statistics in Great Britain, 2021 report, there were an estimated 11,000 workers who had work-related ill health cases which were either new or long-standing.
There are many different types of occupational illness, affecting employees from a range of industries. The Health and Safety Executive in the UK has identified two priority areas in which interventions and activities are aimed to raise awareness and create behavioural change amongst employees who are at high risk of an occupational illness are being targeted. These are:
Generally, there are many different types of occupational diseases, which can be grouped into the following categories overall:
According to RIDDOR, a reportable occupational disease must be diagnosable by a doctor. Regulation 8 of the Health and Safety regulation from the HSE states that employers and self-employed individuals must report any cases of certain diagnosed reportable diseases which are linked to specific hazards that they have been exposed to in an occupational setting.
The following 6 reportable occupational diseases are identified by RIDDOR.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (also known as CTS) is significant pressure that has been placed on a nerve in the wrist. This can cause uncomfortable sensations of numbness and tingling and often pain within the hands and fingers.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is an occupational disease that affects an estimated 1-7% of people in European population studies. A General Practise Research Database in the UK found that an estimated 193 women and 88 men present as new cases per every 100,000 individuals annually.
Symptoms: Common symptoms include: numbness in the hands and wrists, tingling sensations or feeling pins and needles, difficulty gripping objects, a weak thumb / weak thumbs and persistent pain or ache in the fingers, hands or arms.
Prevention and Treatment: Methods to prevent the condition include reducing pressure on the nerve during activities that may be causing significant strain, such as when gripping a tool too tightly. Other methods include giving yourself regular breaks and stretching regularly to reduce pressure or keeping the hands warm to prevent stiffness and therefore any pain.
A wrist splint is also useful in helping to hold the wrist straight to relieve any pressure on the nerve. This method is worn at night, and often it should be worn for at least 4 weeks before the condition may begin to feel any better. These are available to purchase online, or from a pharmacy.
Stopping or reducing activities that may be causing the strain on the nerve in the first place can also help the condition. For example, reducing or stopping the use of instruments or vibrating tools in the workplace that may involve bending the wrists or gripping devices harshly.
In some cases, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome can disappear on its own over a few months. But trying to treat the issue sooner rather than later can stop it from having a significant impact on day-to-day activity in the long run.
Common occupations that are prone to carpal tunnel syndrome include any occupations that have heavy keyboard use, hairstylists, garment workers, sewers and stitchers, carpenters, mechanics, cleaners, assembly line workers, drivers and employees within the manufacturing industry to name a few.
Occupational dermatitis is a skin condition that is caused by an individual coming into contact with irritant chemical products in the workplace, which also gives it its other name, contact dermatitis.
There are two types of contact dermatitis; irritant and allergic. Irritant dermatitis is when the chemical in contact with the skin is a highly irritant or corrosive substance. This type of occupational dermatitis composes 80% of the total cases of occupational dermatitis. The other 20% of cases are caused by allergic contact dermatitis, which is defined as an individual having an allergic or sensitised reaction to a chemical after initial contact.
Symptoms: Symptoms of occupational dermatitis are focused on the inflammation of the area that has been exposed to the chemical product in question. Symptoms of this inflammation can include: pain, swelling, redness, itching and potentially even having blisters forming in the affected area.
Prevention and Treatment: Common prevention and treatments include using topical steroid creams, using fragrance-free moisturising creams and wearing appropriate skin protection such as gloves. Further treatment methods include taking antibiotics in instances of secondary infection, soap substitutes to avoid further irritation or even systemic therapy like oral tablets or injections.
Occupations that are prone to contact dermatitis include health care employees, those working in the beauty industry, hairdressing, construction, printing, cleaning, catering and metalworking.
Commonly abbreviated as HAVS, hand-arm vibration syndrome is a condition that is caused by continuous or repetitive exposure of the hands and arms to vibrations, such as when using handheld tools like grinders and chipping hammers.
Symptoms: The condition causes a change in sensation of the fingers and can lead to permanent numbness in the fingers, weakening of the muscles and therefore grip in hands and the condition can even lead to white finger - a reduction in blood circulation to the fingers causing the skin to become waxy and pale in colour.
Other symptoms include general aches and pains in the hands and arms due to minor damage to the bones, joints and muscles in the areas.
Prevention and Treatment: Avoiding holding tools tightly, using tools correctly, taking regular breaks and keeping hands and fingers warm are useful preventative methods for this condition.
Treatments include: stopping the use of vibrational tools if at all possible to stop the progression of the condition, avoiding any medication that can reduce circulation in the fingers e.g., decongestants and stopping smoking if you’re a smoker as this can clog up the arteries carrying blood to the fingers which reduces circulation.
Occupations that are often prone to this syndrome include builders and construction workers, cleaning and domestic workers, public servants, mining and quarrying and forestry.
A form of asthma caused by irritants in the air in the workplace. Often, the condition is reversible, so symptoms can disappear when the offending irritants are removed.
Symptoms: Common symptoms include: wheezing, nasal congestion, eye irritation, chest tightening, shortness of breath and a runny nose.
Prevention and Treatment: Many people who suffer from asthma never fully recover from the condition, but use an inhaler to help lessen symptoms and keep them under control, allowing them to live without being too badly impacted.
Quitting smoking can help lessen symptoms of occupational asthma and losing weight if a person is overweight can help improve lung function and therefore symptoms of the condition. Avoiding the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may also prevent symptoms from getting worse.
Occupations that are often prone to occupational asthma include cleaners, chemical workers, healthcare workers, hairdressers, woodwork and welding workers and animal handlers.
Tendonitis is a condition whereby a tendon is inflamed which causes pain and swelling in the affected area. Tenosynovitis is linked to Tendonitis, which occurs when the lining around a tendon is inflamed.
Symptoms: Pain in the affected tendon when moved or touched, swelling and a grating feeling when moving the joint.
Prevention and Treatment: The most commonly recommended treatment for this condition is rest, and in some cases, the use of a splint or brace may be useful to stop movement of the affected area. Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can also be useful, and a prescription can be gained from a GP. In rare cases, surgery to repair a tendon may be recommended by a medical professional.
Taking breaks often, as well as learning how to properly lift and move in the right ways can prevent strain on the tendons and therefore the development of the condition in the first place.
Occupations that are often prone to these conditions include construction workers, maintenance workers, hairdressers, artists, office workers or people that often use keyboards and sports professionals.
When muscle contraction does not occur properly it causes spasms and cramping, which often occurs specifically in the hands or forearms.
Symptoms: Pain in the area that is cramping that inhibits proper use of the affected area temporarily.
Prevention and Treatment: Prevention and treatment include stretching often, avoiding dehydration, partaking in muscle strengthening exercises and using hand tools correctly or even stopping using anything or avoiding activities that may be causing the cramps.
Occupations that are often prone to this include Professions in which professionals are often using/causing strain on their hands and forearms.
The most common occupational health disease in the UK is all conditions that fall under the classification of musculoskeletal disorders. These are injuries or disorders of the tendons, joints, cartilage, muscles, nerves and spinal discs that are highly contributed to by profession and working environment.
The UK Government official Health and Safety Executive Report of an occupational disease form is used to report cases of an occupational disease used in the UK. RIDDOR (2013) requires that all diagnoses of occupational diseases are reported to the relevant enforcing authority.
The Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit from the UK Government entitles individuals to Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB) if they have become ill or disabled because of a disease or incident whilst at work.
Prioritising our own health and safety as well as the health and safety of others is of the utmost importance, particularly whilst in the workplace. Learning about occupational diseases, as well as how they can be prevented and treated can help avoid long-term negative implications on wellbeing and reduce the significant impact on daily and workplace functioning in the future.
If you’d like to learn more about health and safety at work, we cover this topic in greater detail during our ‘IOSH Working Safely Course’. We also offer a ‘Risk Assessment in the Workplace’ course, certified by CPD, which is designed to increase understanding of hazards and evaluation of risk in the workplace to implement appropriate measures for safety.