Returning soldiers display dangers of airborne dust
Aside from the obvious hazards of working in a warzone, soldiers may begin to show signs of other occupational symptoms months or years after returning home. Research carried out by the Veterans Association in America has found that soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have far higher rates of common respiratory illnesses than their comrades who served elsewhere.
Doctors suggest that these disorders, including asthma and emphysema, are caused by exposure to dust storms or fire pits throughout their tours of duty. And seeing as British troops served alongside their US counterparts in many of the same regions, we can expect UK regiments to be similarly affected.
The dangers of dust
You don’t have to visit a warzone to come into contact that can seriously affect your health however. The dangers of airborne asbestos are well-known, but cement, brick, sand and wood all have the potential to cause serious lung diseases and even cancer if inhaled over a long period of time.
To help combat these problems, employers are expected to install dust extraction units and face masks to protect workers and limit the amount of particulates they inhale. Soldiers are unfortunately not afforded such luxuries, greatly increasing the risks associated with the job.
Aside from asbestosis, the other common work-related respiratory disease is silicosis, an inflammation and scarring of the lungs caused by inhaling crystalline silica dust (like sand). Unfortunately there is no cure for silicosis and around 46,000 people die each year as a result of the condition.
Deaths on the decline
Better provision of protective equipment, air filtering and dust suppression systems have certainly helped improve conditions. Silicosis deaths have actually fallen from 55,000 in 1990 clearly demonstrating that employers are doing more to protect their workforce.
It is unclear whether these figures include soldiers however, so it may be possible that cases contracted whilst fighting in Afghanistan or either of the Gulf wars may have been omitted.
Protecting against occupational respiratory diseases
Although it is hard to control the dusty, desert environment of Afghanistan, employers can do plenty to help protect their workers here in the UK. Every risk assessment should take account of exposure to dust and airborne particulates and specify mechanisms by which exposure can be minimised.
In many cases employees will need to be issued with personal protective equipment, such as a face mask, to prevent inhalation of dust. Where they are dealing with particularly dangerous chemicals, full breathing equipment and suitable training in its use will be required.
Certain environments will also require dust extraction units, designed to remove particulates from the air at the point of creation, before they can be inhaled. These machines will also need to be checked every 14 months to ensure that filters are clean and that extraction is effective.
Unfortunately for soldiers, the personal cost of defending the UK can be extremely high. Which is why employers need to do their bit to protect those who work here at home.
So over to you – what measures do you have in place to protect your employees’ respiratory health?