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Lung transplant cases cause for alarm over workplace toxins: 7 steps to protect workers

Mar 06, 2015

Lead symbolA series of disturbing research results highlights the need for vigilance in preventing workplace exposure to toxics substances. Last month, the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health issued an alert on exposure to silica1. The alert was triggered by reports of silicosis among 45 workers who make or install stone countertops. Ten required lung transplants.

These three findings also made headlines in recent months:

  • lead exposure and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). People with chronic exposure may have 80% greater odds of contracting ALS than people with no exposure2
  • short-term diesel exhaust exposure and DNA damage. The speed with which damage occurred exceeded their expectations, researchers told CBC. "Quite rapidly, it turns out - we're showing in hours - you observe changes in the blood that may have long-term implications."3
  • cadmium exposure and premature aging of cells. "People with the highest cadmium exposure had cells that looked on average 11 years older than their chronological age," reported one researcher.4

"Findings like this remind us that we can't take exposure control for granted," says WSPS supervisor, technical services Wagish Yajaman. Here's more to keep in mind:

  • new occupational exposure limits (OELs) set by Ontario's Ministry of Labour will take effect July 1.5
  • OELs change, typically becoming more stringent rather than less.
  • OELs are not a goal to aim for. They're a maximum exposure level.

Take these 7 steps to protect your people

  1. Rely on science, not your gut. People may not see, hear, feel or taste exposure, and such symptoms as cancers, chemical hypersensitivity and nervous system impairment may take years to appear.
  2. If you’re already measuring workplace exposures, check your most recent readings against current OELs and adjust your control strategy as needed. "OEL changes may impact the type of controls already in place to protect employee health," says Yajaman. "Also consider updating any sampling you conducted previously to find out what workers are being exposed to now."
  3. If you're not already measuring exposure and think it may be occurring, establish a sampling strategy with a certified or registered occupational hygienist.
  4. Explore all possible routes of exposure: inhalation, skin contact, eye contact, and ingestion. "I've been in workplaces where workers routinely eat lunch in the work area, not the lunchroom," says Yajaman. "Co-workers may be welding or grinding around them as they eat."
  5. Where toxins are present, inform your people and train them on how to protect themselves. "I sometimes encounter complacency among workers because 'this is the way we've always done it.' This tells me they don't understand the health effects of the chemicals they’re using, or how to minimize their exposure."
  6. Implement a hierarchy of hazard control: elimination, substitution, engineering, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment (PPE). Use PPE as a last resort. If you must use it, make sure it's the right PPE, and that workers know how to wear it and look after it.
  7. Aim for exposure levels at 50% of the OELs to ensure worker health is protected at all times. Better still, aim for no exposure.

How we can help

  • Check out our online occupational hygiene resources, such as e-courses, free downloads, and videos.
  • Speak with a WSPS hygienist or consultant, who can help you review exposures and put the right levels of control in place.
  • At Partners in Prevention 2015 Health & Safety Conference & Trade Show, April 28-29 in Mississauga, speak with service providers, including WSPS consultants, and attend these sessions:
    • 3D Printers: What End Users Should Know About Health and Environmental Consequences
    • Asbestos Exposure and the Continuing Burden of Asbestos-Related Disease
    • Best Practices in Building Safe, Cost-Effective PPE Programs
    • Effects of Workplace Noise and Its Controls
    • Medical Surveillance Programs: Do They Have a Role in Your Workplace?
    • New and Revised Chemical Exposure Limits in the Workplace
    • Welding: An Occupational Health Perspective (professional development course)
    • Workplace Noise Surveys (professional development course)

1 Worker Exposure to Silica during Countertop Manufacturing, Finishing and Installation (PDF)

2 "A Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies of the Association Between Chronic Occupational Exposure to Lead and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis," Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Vol. 56, No. 12, December 2014

3 "Short-term diesel exhaust inhalation in a controlled human crossover study is associated with changes in DNA methylation of circulating mononuclear cells in asthmatics", Particle and Fibre Toxicology

4 "Associations of Cadmium and Lead Exposure with Leukocyte Telomere Length: Findings From National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999-2002," American Journal of Epidemiology, December 10, 2014

5 Occupational exposure limits (OELs) restrict the amount and length of time a worker is exposed to airborne concentrations of hazardous biological or chemical agents