Opinion

Supporting the WHO’s call to improve air quality for workers

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Richard Jones, MSc CFIOSH EurOSHM FRSH MIoD MCIPR PIEMA, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, IOSH.

“If the cost of action is high, the cost of inaction is enormously greater.” This was the compelling message from the first World Health Organization (WHO) Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health, which took place last autumn in Geneva. 

The conference agreed an urgent need for global action to cut by two-thirds by 2030 the estimated 7 million deaths each year caused by air pollution. All countries and cities were encouraged to achieve WHO air quality guideline levels and 17 elements for a Geneva Action Agenda to Combat Air Pollution were identified.

The convenor of Mission 2020 urged attendees to stop treating the air as a dumping ground for industrial waste – just like London had to stop using the Thames as an open sewer to tackle the Great Stink in 1858.

Workers exposed to rising levels of air pollution were among the groups highlighted as being at significant risk and needing protection. Key action points included enhanced education and awareness of air quality issues and the implementation of OSH regulations to protect workers from occupational exposure to air pollution, outdoors and indoors.

World Clean Air Day on 20 June provides a timely opportunity to reflect on how IOSH’s work aligns with the WHO’s call to improve air quality for workers.

 
In 2015, there were more than 475,500 estimated respiratory disease deaths from exposure to hazardous substances

 

IOSH’s response to the WHO’s draft 13th General Programme of Work 2019-23 stressed the OSH elements of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 3 on health and wellbeing. Its aims include to “substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination”.

This goal is supported by our No Time to Lose campaign to prevent occupational cancers, targeting diesel engine exhaust, silica dust and asbestos, our partnership with EU-OSHA on the Healthy Workplaces Manage Dangerous Substances campaign, and our prevention work with the International Social Security Association.  

In addition, our research programme is examining diesel engine exhaust exposure and solutions for professional drivers and has also flagged up air quality health problems in coalmines as well as potential risk to global container port workers from container fumigation.

IOSH is pleased to work collaboratively and to be represented on joint committees to tackle respiratory hazards, including the Healthy Lung Partnership, Asbestos Leadership Group, Construction Dust Partnership and LEV and RPE work groups.

Globally, in 2015 alone, there were more than 475,500 estimated respiratory disease deaths from exposure to hazardous substances, as well as more than 262,500 deaths from trachea, bronchus and  lung cancers. Exposures can lead to a range of illnesses, notably chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is growing worldwide, and asthma.

The rise in fatal work-related ill-health cases in 2015 was linked to previous underestimates of COPD, as noted in the report Global Estimates of Occupational Accidents and Work-related Illnesses 2017. After factoring in these shortfalls, respiratory diseases are the third major cause of work-related mortality behind circulatory diseases and work-related cancers. 

IOSH supports increased global focus and prioritisation to cut this stark toll of inaction. Importantly, the hierarchy of control promoted in No Time to Lose for reducing exposure to carcinogens will also help to prevent COPD and associated deaths. And IOSH’s priorities and WORK 2022 Strategy will help us to collaborate on progressing the OSH elements of this vital WHO initiative and improve air-quality for workers at risk worldwide.

 

Richard Jones, MSc CFIOSH EurOSHM FRSH MIoD MCIPR PIEMA, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, IOSH. 

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