Occupational Health: Risks in the Workplace and Legislation

Some workplaces may present risks to the health of the workers. Here are some concepts about occupational illness and the legislation to prevent it.

Many industrial processes employ dangerous solvents or chemicals; therefore, people working in these environments can be at risk, due to possible exposure or handling of these hazardous compounds. We talk about occupational illness or occupational disease if somebody develops a chronic health problem due to their working activity.

Studying occupational illness: occupational medicine

Occupational medicine is the branch of medicine studying occupational illness; it tries to establish a connection between a particular job and a disease. Occupational medicine operates in two main ways:

   it checks the possible dangers associated with a particular process and/or work environment

   it monitors the health of the workers employed in that environment

Regarding the first point, the aim is to establish which are the potential risks for the workers. For instance, if some dangerous chemicals are used in a certain industrial process, the actual working conditions are tested, to see what the real exposure of the workers to these substances is.

Monitoring the health of the workers is a very important part as well, as this can show if they develop any illness.

This kind of study also helps to discover the effect that some compounds can have on human health. Normally a comparison is made between the rate of incidence for a particular disease within a certain group of workers, and the rate in the standard population. If the two are very different, the first one being higher, a link between the compounds used at work and the development of the disease can be established.

Vinyl chloride and liver cancer: an example of occupational illness

The carcinogenicity of vinyl chloride has been recognized for several years; it can cause liver cancer, in particular angiosarcoma. The connection between the chemical compound and the tumor was established through occupational medicine studies. In particular:

   Tests were made on the workers of different industrial plants. They showed that the incidence rate of angiosarcoma, a relatively rare cancer, was unusually high amongst the workers of plants where vinyl chloride was used.

   From these data, several oncological studies were performed, to check what was the cause of cancer – if it was vinyl chloride, or if it was any other chemical used in the processes.

   The results confirmed the dangers associated with exposure to vinyl chloride; the hazards were especially high if no protection and/or precautions were taken.

Prevention: the legislation

Today there is much more awareness about the dangers of some chemicals, and their effects on human health. Some substances are classified as hazardous; for these, there are legal limits for occupational exposure.

In Europe, for instance, the values for Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs) are set for about 1000 substances. These values are decided based on the results of scientific studies, following the principle of “no observed adverse effect levels” (NOAELs) after exposure to a particular chemical at that concentration.

The limits normally refer to exposure periods of either 8 hours or 15 minutes. The first one is associated with the normal length for a shift in the industry, while the second one is set for shorter non-routine operations – for instance, the cleaning of parts of industrial plants – that can cause a higher exposure.

More developments

The list of hazardous substances mentioned above is not exhaustive, as new compounds are continuously produced and used. Furthermore, there is not enough information about the dangers of many other compounds currently used; this makes it impossible to set an OEL value for them.

For this reason, it is important to continue studies of occupational Illness, and for the health of workers to be considered a priority in any working environment.


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