Employers are required by law (COSHH Regulations) to assess the risk to their employees of hazardous substances. These risks must then be prevented at a source or controlled.
The message is beginning to get through. More companies are installing local exhaust ventilation (LEV). However, that is not sufficient: companies must ensure that these systems function as intended.
Legally, companies must maintain and service their LEV systems and have them thoroughly examined and tested annually. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) can spot-check inspection results and prosecute if no action is taken. For example, in 2015 an accident repair centre in Wales was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay costs of £4,666 for failing to comply with an improvement notice. But this random spot-checking is not enough.
A culture that is failing thousands of UK workers every year
Sadly, in practice, when we are LEV testing we see systems that we have failed in the past and are still failing. It seems the threat of HSE spot-checks, and the fact that they are endangering their team, are not sufficient motivators for companies to follow up on a failed test and make a fix.
Many companies perceive there is little prospect of the HSE paying them a visit. Therefore, they take no action if an LEV system fails its annual inspection. In consequence, people are needlessly falling ill and even dying each year from diseases that are easily prevented, if a properly functioning LEV system is in place.
Let’s reflect on the numbers. According to the HSE, about 15% of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) can be attributed to workplace exposure. This is the equivalent of about 4,000 COPD deaths in the UK every year. And that is by no means the full picture. Cancer, occupational asthma and other conditions that are often attributed to exposure to harmful substances are not included.
Statutory reporting for LEV systems that fail testing
In light of the huge impact of workplace exposure to contaminants, we would like to see it become mandatory that when an LEV system fails an inspection it is a reportable offence. We think the obligation should fall on the testing company to notify the HSE.
A similar provision is made in the regulation of some other hazardous activities. The LOLER regulations – which apply to lift – require that if lifting gear (for example chains or strops) fail their annual inspection, it is reported to the HSE.
Failed lifting gear is the cause of far fewer deaths, or instances of illness, than exposure to hazardous substances. But the sudden impact of such a death is more headline-grabbing than the longer-term effects of poisoning.
After considering this, surely most people would agree that releasing a carcinogen into the air should be a reportable offence?
Helping the HSE become more effective
If the HSE know where to look, they could check that companies are responding to failed LEV tests to ensure their LEV equipment is fit for purpose.
And in the new culture, this would create, companies would be spurred to act rather than ignoring the problem. If the alternative is a high chance of prosecution, fines or worse, more attention would be paid to those failing LEV systems.
Reducing unnecessary illness and death in the workplace
At Vent-Tech, we feel very strongly about protecting the UK workforce. LEV systems are required for a reason, and if they are not functioning properly then it puts employees’ lives and well-being at risk. The HSE aims to reduce the number of people who are getting sick or even dying from exposure to hazardous substances. By adopting this proposal, the HSE will ensure all companies and their staff will benefit from safe and effective LEV processes.