Protection against work-related diseases

Development, implementation of exposure control plan is key
Monday, July 22, 2013
By Don Schouten

Occupational diseases are the largest cause of workplace deaths every year. Asbestos, lead and silica are all hazardous materials found on job sites that can not only cause health problems decades after exposure but often much worse.

In 2012, 86 of 149 fatalities were caused by occupational diseases – 68 of those from asbestos alone. Sadly, this number is expected to rise over the next decade as more workers fall ill due to exposure earlier in their careers. And these statistics don’t tell the whole picture. The personal cost of these diseases is carried by workers themselves as well as their coworkers, families and friends.

Preventing disease is a unique challenge for today’s businesses because unlike regular job site hazards, which can be seen and where trauma is immediate, workers don’t know if they’ve breathed in harmful toxins until they get sick years later.

So how can workers protect themselves?

In the case where there may be exposure to a hazardous material, an exposure control plan that meets occupational health and safety legislation must be developed and implemented. These plans range in tactics but all are required by law in order to keep everyone safe.

When it comes to asbestos, most buildings pre-1990 likely contain some hazardous materials. In the demolition or renovation of a building, for example, asbestos fibres can easily become airborne, are light enough to stay in the air a long time and can be inhaled without knowing. So, it’s important to be informed about the job site and make sure workers are protected.

Be sure to ask for information concerning asbestos when tendering or quoting for work. This information will help to cost the job correctly, plan the work safely and prevent potentially expensive surprises on site. Before any work begins, work with a reputable asbestos abatement company to identify, report and properly remove or contain any hazardous materials. Workers should also be informed about the potential risks and provided with the regulation-approved personal protective equipment and training on the protocols for dealing with asbestos materials.

Another source of occupational disease is lead. It can be found in paint, lead sheet, flashing, a number of plumbing fittings or when demolishing or renovating old buildings. Following regulation requirements will help to minimize the risk of inhalation or ingestion – the most common forms of lead exposure.

To reduce the risk of exposure, dust off housekeeping procedures and remind workers of personal hygiene habits such as hand-washing and changing clothes. Of course, all workers should be provided with proper training and personal protective equipment to protect themselves.

Silica is another hazardous material commonly found in concrete, masonry and most rocks. The cutting, breaking or crushing of these materials can sometimes produce fine silica dust, which has been linked to many occupational diseases. Depending on the situation, a combination of ventilation, filtration and personal protective equipment may be needed to minimize exposure of this deadly dust.

Don Schouten is the industry and labour services manager for construction at WorkSafeBC. He can be reached at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *