Time to act to protect long term employee health

While the rates of accidents likely to cause immediate health problems in the pharma industry are relatively low, the effective monitoring of longer term health effects needs addressing, argues workplace dust and noise measurement specialist Casella

While the industry continues to make great strides in mass producing drugs that protect and improve the health of millions, huge numbers of workers involved in the manufacture of tablets are finding their own health at serious risk as a result of their working environment. And for employees who do succumb to respiratory disease or suffer from noise induced hearing loss, there is little chance of a cure any time soon.

In a global culture that is attuned to the safety risks in a workplace, it is vital that the same emphasis is also placed on the long-term health of the workers. Some of this emphasis is simply down to how much media attention is focused on accidents and fatalities rather than workers’ health issues.

Fortunately, accidents within the pharma industry are infrequent. But the chemical spill at Novartis’s Basel plant in 2012 hospitalised a number of workers, as well as staff from an outside cleaning agency with severe coughs and breathing issues. While the immediate health problems have been recorded, it remains to be seen whether this incident will present any long-term implications in terms of respiratory health.

Industry is beginning to accept that as part of its duty of care to workers, it needs to safeguard their long-term health as well as protect them from workplace hazards

This was not the first incident in the region. In 1986, a serious fire occurred at a Sandoz plant (later part of Novartis), resulting in the burning of 1,351 tonnes of chemicals. This may not have caused human fatalities but it provides a salutary warning that increased effort to safeguard the health of workers in the industry should be a priority.

With a growing global workforce of around 350,000, and with many large factories based in the developing world, the industry is beginning to accept that as part of its duty of care to workers, it needs to safeguard their long-term health as well as protect them from workplace hazards. After all, it makes good economic sense to establish a culture based on prevention and precaution rather than cure and compensation.

One of the major issues faced by the pharmaceutical factory is that production typically takes place in enclosed conditions, which has the potential to keep airborne contaminants circulating within a limited area. From production processes to cleaning and maintenance, installing an air quality extraction system is a necessity, but levels of dust across the plant must be closely and regularly monitored to ensure the system’s efficacy.

High level noise exposure should also not be overlooked as a hazard in the pharmaceutical manufacturing environment. The equipment used, such as compressed air, vacuum sources and ventilation systems, can produce noise levels that on a long-term basis have the capacity to produce life-long hearing issues in exposed workers.

The most effective way of protecting the hearing of workers is by equipping them with a personal noise dosimeter

The most effective way of protecting the hearing of workers within the industry is by equipping employees with a personal noise dosimeter. Small, unobtrusive and easily attached to the wearer without getting in the way of work, it is an ideal solution for any environment.

For workplace noise surveys a handheld device that measures short-term noise levels is ideal. For environmental monitoring a hand-held device that can cover short-, medium- and long-term levels can also be used or sited at the boundary; a web-based system remotely captures noise levels, helping to ensure they remain within acceptable limits to safeguard the impact on the community.

In terms of protecting workers against airborne contaminants, a site survey is usually the first step, which is carried out with a hand-held device to determine how much dust there is and where. The airborne dust is graphically displayed in real time, so that decisive and corrective action can be carried out for problem areas or areas for further investigation can be identified.

The Microdust Pro CEL-712 aerosol monitor kit for real-time detection of airborne dusts

However, the accepted method of measuring a pharmaceutical factory worker’s exposure to dust is personal monitoring. A sampling pump draws in a volume of air through a pre-weighed glass fibre filter to determine ‘Total Inhalable Dust’ or ‘Respirable Dust’. The former is the total amount of airborne materials that can enter the respiratory system, which can be up to 100µm in size; the largest of these can be naturally expelled by the body’s own defence system.

The more problematic particles are those around 10µm in size, classified as ‘Respirable Dust’, which can potentially penetrate and lodge deep within the lungs. Once this occurs, the possibility of developing Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) or even lung cancer are significantly raised. And if this exposure continues for a prolonged period, the likelihood of a healthy life post-retirement starts to diminish.

Although change is occurring, the most recent figures connected to work-related disease are cited as the source for around two million deaths every year.1 And with diseases caused by occupational exposure killing six times more employees than work-related accidents, the evidence suggests that this is an epidemic that needs addressing at source, rather than attempting to treat the symptom.

The question is, what is holding back businesses from implementing monitoring equipment?

With such clear data, the question is what is holding back businesses from implementing monitoring equipment? For some, the most likely answer is the financial commitment. But when considering this against the possibility of mass compensation claims, this could be viewed as a false economy. After all, some prudent investment may actually remove the threat of health-related compensation altogether.

While the UK has taken on board the recommendations in the 2011 Löfsted report, and is actively making occupational health as big an issue as safety, other nations may hold back until legislation forces them into introducing measures.

A further challenge is that of education of the workers themselves. Understanding the cause and effect of safety issues is often easier than something as nebulous as occupational health. While the risk of unsecured loads or slippery surfaces can easily be illustrated in a poster, teaching a large workforce about the long-term dangers of air pollutants or dust toxicity and the importance of participating in monitoring programmes is harder.

If an organisation is lucky or, more likely, large enough to have them, occupational hygienists are the specialists best placed to educate staff on these issues while overseeing the monitoring programmes. In many organisations, however, the task may fall to health and safety managers or sometimes production managers who already have more than enough to do and are unable to give it the proper time and attention it needs. Bringing in specialist consultants is certainly an option.

A steady but vigorous monitoring campaign to assess and deal with risk of dust exposure is likely to give pharmaceutical workers the healthy retirement they deserve. And it is a great opportunity for those in the more developed world to set the benchmark of occupational health excellence by ensuring factories are fit for purpose, and the workers within are fit for life.

Reference

1. Statistics provided by International Labour Organisation http://ilo.org/global/topics/safety-and-health-at-work/lang--en/index.htm

Companies