The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) Annual Science Review has highlighted the work of its PPE Technical Team in supporting the agency’s COVID-19 pandemic response.
Great Britain's health and safety regulator’s sixth annual science review, which takes ‘COVID-19: Collaboration in a time of crisis’ as its theme, contains a number of case studies that not only demonstrate the agency’s science and engineering achievements in managing the risks related to the pandemic but also the wider OSH environment.
Commenting on the 2021 review, HSE’s chief scientific adviser and director of research, Professor Andrew Curran, said: ‘We are proud of the impact our science has had on keeping people and work environments healthy and safe. It is difficult to pick any particular highlights. However, in terms of sheer scale, I am particularly impressed by the work our technical experts have been doing to ensure that any personal protective equipment that enters the supply chain in Great Britain will protect the person who wears it.’
The review notes that early into the pandemic, and in response to urgent OSH enquiries, the HSE set up a new Virtual PPE Unit, to provide prompt technical advice and ensure that PPE products, suitable for use, reached the National Health Service (NHS) front line without delay.
In response to the massive surge in global demand for PPE and the need for unprecedented quantities to protect health care workers, the HSE, as the market surveillance authority, needed to approve all non-CE-marked PPE before it could enter the NHS supply chain.
The HSE’s rapidly formed PPE Technical Team, based in the Virtual PPE Unit, evaluated technical documentation of non-CE-marked products and new UK manufacturers.
According to the review, by the end of December 2020, the 18-strong team had dealt with more than 830 enquiries, with work scheduled to continue until at least mid-2021.
Drawn from HSE’s Science and Research Centre and specialist occupational hygiene inspectors, the PPE Technical Team also worked with regulatory colleagues from the Office of Product Safety and Standards and the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority to develop a training package for UK government.
This technical expertise included providing scientific evidence and advice to inform the development and review of HSE and government guidance associated with PPE use in healthcare, and in industries, as they planned to return to work.
As the review notes, ‘This [work] enabled over 150 delegates to access the training across five live online sessions facilitated by HSE’s training team. The aim of the training was to provide insight and information to help avoid counterfeit or unsuitable PPE.'
The HSE’s review adds that the PPE Technical Team also undertook research to explore the potential decontamination and re-use of PPE.
According to the HSE, setting up the HSE Virtual PPE Unit and its associated technical team inside has had a number of benefits.
‘This enabled PPE stocks coming into the healthcare supply chain to be evaluated, ensuring they met essential health and safety requirements,' the review notes. 'This provided assurance that healthcare staff caring for COVID-19 patients could be adequately protected.'
At a strategic level, the review covers the support the HSE has provided the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and others to minimise COVID-19 transmission.
For example, to better understand how the virus transmits from person to another, the HSE used computational fluid dynamics to model a range of factors that can influence the dispersion of virus-containing droplets. The findings from this research were communicated to SAGE to inform policy.
The HSE also helped to develop the Environmental and Modelling Group (EMG) as a sub-group of SAGE and its scientists and engineers have played an important role in providing scientific evidence, through SAGE, to support the government’s decision-making during the pandemic.
According to the review, this includes providing evidence about air cleaning technologies to control bio-aerosols, automated decontamination systems and methods for the re-use of PPE to cope with shortages.
In another practical case study, the review highlights the work that the Chemical Regulation Division undertook to simplify and streamline the authorisation procedure for hand sanitisers, with the main focus on isopropanol-based products.
According to the HSE, new regulatory procedures were required, and a specialist team of co-ordinators and chemists were set up to assess and process product applications, so that sufficient quantities of hand sanitisers could reach the market to meet the exceptional demands experienced at the peak of the pandemic in April/May 2020.
Building on its established biosafety course, which trains lab workers and biological safety officers in the principles of safe working with hazardous pathogenic micro-organisms, the HSE also developed bespoke courses for staff working with bulk quantities of live SARS-CoV-2 virus for vaccine research and development and for staff diagnostics work for COVID-19 testing.
Beyond its pandemic response, the HSE review highlights a number of case studies that illustrates how the agency is using its expertise to enhance its evidence base, inform policy and regulation and improve OSH. Its non-pandemic work includes research into the safe use of liquid hydrogen, an assessment of an alternative method of measuring asbestos fibres in the air and a legionella intervention analysis.