BOHS warns of dire consequences if better protection of workers from COVID-19 infection is not put in place

The British Occupational Hygiene Society, the leading scientific charity and the Chartered Society for worker health protection is expressing concern about alarming trends in the latest Office for National Statistics figures on COVID-19 deaths.

“People are dying unnecessarily, because there is still insufficient understanding of occupational hygiene measures that can prevent the spread of this disease,” says President Kelvin Williams. “The knowledge is available, but not all areas of the public sector and government seem to be using it.”

The Society says that the figures prove that more focus needs to be placed on getting the right workplace protections into the right sectors, including effective respirators for all key health and public-facing workers and more attention to other protection, including proper ventilation, enforced social distancing and hand hygiene in the workplace.

The Society already provides a free online guide BOHS – COVID-19: Occupation Risk Rating and Control Options According to Exposure Rank – British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) to help every sector identify the best control measures for the protection of workers but sees the need for more work by UK government and business leaders to save lives.

The latest government figures continue to show higher deaths amongst health and social care workers, but also those working on production lines, amongst professional drivers and in customer-facing roles.

“We see excess deaths in other public-facing occupations, such as restaurant and catering managers, bus, coach and taxi-drivers, which shows there is more to do to protect them from obvious risk” says Mr Williams who chairs the Society’s COVID-19 expert group. “However, the high level of deaths amongst metal working and machine operatives, construction workers indicates that there are some sectors where more needs to be done to tackle vulnerabilities or working practices.”

BOHS is particularly concerned as workers in these are areas already suffer poor respiratory health from dust and fume exposures, which cause tens of thousands of premature deaths and chronic illness each year. COVID-19 infection and preexisting respiratory disease amongst construction and manufacturing workers may well put them at added risk. Scientists may never find out the effects of Covid-19 infection amongst those exposed to dust or welding fumes.

“The data the ONS provides gives a glimpse of connections between COVID-19 and the working environments people are in. It may be that track and trace data gives us a further insight in the future, but other workplace exposures are not monitored by GPs and health professionals. So, we really don’t know just how many COVID-19 complications may exist as a result of what people do for a living,” says Mr Williams. BOHS recommends that government funds epidemiological research to understand the risks of long COVID amongst those workers most at risk.

Getting the right protection to the right people is crucial to reduce unnecessary COVID-19 deaths advises the scientific charity, in the week when Scotland’s John Swinney is reported as considering requiring members of the public to wear “medical grade” masks for shopping trips. In an open letter, to the Deputy First Minister, the Society urges the Scottish Government to focus its attention on the thousands of workers who cannot work remotely and are at risk, not only in their journey to work, but in the workplace.

“One size does not fit all when it comes to COVID-19 protection,” says Dr Rob Aitken of the Institute of Occupational Medicine, who are experts in occupational health risk protection. “The scientific evidence is overwhelming that proper FFP respirators, not surgical masks, are needed for all patient and public facing staff within hospitals and for public-facing roles as part of systematic protection, including ventilation and behavioral/management controls.”

The letter comes as nursing and auxiliary healthcare staff, who are still amongst the highest risk occupation, have demanded better respiratory protection. As late as November of last year, Scottish doctors were writing in the Journal of Occupational Medicine to highlight the inadequacy of respiratory protective equipment.

BOHS has consistently campaigned since March 2020 to ensure that the NHS provides all its frontline workers with properly fitted filtering respirators within the context of properly thought out and managed occupational hygiene precautions, including ventilation. BOHS is a world-leading authority on the use of respiratory protection and other controls in the workplace.

“Employers owe a duty of care to their workers and the government has a duty to the general public. It is obvious that through the lack of application of systematic essential protections, some employers in the private and public sectors are not meeting these. The long-term implications legally and politically are yet to be felt,” warns BOHS CEO who is a former Professor of Public Law.