Improving perception of hazardous substances

OSH content developer, IOSH

When you talk to most people about occupational safety and health (OSH), they will probably start talking about trip hazards, falls from height or mechanical hazards. Rarely will their thought be of work-related disease or ill health.

According to the International Labour Organization, work-related diseases caused more than 1.9 million deaths a year in 2017, which was up on previous years. Hazardous substances alone caused almost double the amount of deaths than safety-related events.

So why are there so many work-related deaths worldwide from hazardous substances?

This all comes down to risk perception. Humans tend to concentrate on things that they can see, hear, touch and smell. Something that does not immediately hurt them tends to be ignored.

Most non-OSH professionals will assess risks subconsciously. Risk perception links the likelihood of a hazardous event occurring with the severity of the event, but are most people’s perception of risk biased? Do they fear high-severity, but rare events more than low severity, more frequent events? Also, are events that expose many people at once to risk perceived as more dangerous than events in which people are killed in small numbers every day?

Take the UK for example. In 2017/18, there were ten-times fewer deaths from fire than from lung cancer caused by working with asbestos. The Grenfell disaster accounted for almost a third of the deaths caused by fire and had unprecedented media coverage worldwide. High-profile OSH events such as Grenfell cause most people to focus their attention on that safety topic. Most media coverage will concentrate on these high-severity safety hazards, as they have an immediate effect on groups of people.

Encouraging suppliers to agree to train their workers on hazardous substance health effects as part of their contract could have a major effect on improving perception


Did the deaths caused by asbestos get the same media coverage? It could be argued that they didn’t. So why doesn’t asbestos get the same risk perception as say, fire?

To most people, asbestos is practically invisible. As it is usually contained in walls, ceiling tiles and pipe insulation, it is very difficult to identify without proper labelling and training. Damage to this material can be easily ignored in the workplace, especially in less visited areas. 

Lung cancer is the most serious disease that can be caused by asbestos exposure. It can take years to develop any symptoms. This makes it difficult to work out where a worker was originally exposed to asbestos. It is therefore easy for an organisation to not treat health effects as a priority.

So what can we do as OSH professionals? Let’s get our organisations to look at their supply chains. As well as providing a service, are their suppliers managing the risks to their workers’ health? I suggest they look at IOSH’s No Time to Lose campaign (notimetolose.org.uk). 

Encouraging suppliers to agree to train their workers on hazardous substance health effects as part of their contract could have a major effect on improving perception. This will also help form part of the organisation’s sustainability agenda.


OSH content developer, IOSH
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