The 2014 BOHS Conference sadly draws to a close today. It was a fantastic and worthwhile conference and I have learnt a lot both from the technical sessions, and from meeting the many delegates who were kind enough to share their thoughts and stories with me. In the coming weeks I’ll delve more into the details on the topics covered, but for now, I thought I’d share some of the key highlights from my perspective:
The Warner Lecture was provided by Major Phil Ashby, a royal marine who has won a Green Beret and a Commando medal for bravery. He gave an incredibly moving story of his fight for survival deep in the heart of Sierra Leone and almost being killed several times. It was very comforting though when he started his talk and told us that out of all he has been through, that he was still terrified of public speaking!
Professor John Cherrie won the 2014 Bedford Medal and presented his talk, “Get a Life”. He discussed charting people’s exposure from their birth to their death, in a term known as the “exposome”. This includes the processes internal to the body such as metabolites, gut microflora, inflammation etc; through to external infectious agents or chemical contamination; through to social, economic, and psychological influences.
Professor Cherrie introduced us to “omics biomarkers”, which are tools that can be used to measure exposure. The use of “citizen science” is growing, largely due to convenient and affordable (or free) apps on our smart phones, or other small devices that can measure eg: CO2 exposure in our homes, or the number of steps we take in a day. The idea is that we can use these omics biomarkers to understand people’s behaviours and then get a better understanding of their exposure. He stressed the importance of calibrating these omics biomarkers to other standardised equipment to understand their limitations. Professor Cherrie’s key messages were that we need to be aware of the possibilities that these omics biomarkers provide, and although accuracy and precision aren’t everything, the tools do need calibration. The ability to track location and behaviour will provide new data that will help us understand exposures, so we need to be aware that the citizen science revolution is coming! Professor Cherrie was kind enough to share his slides on social media here. You might also like to follow his blog as he provides a fantastic (much more technically interesting) blog here also.
As is always the challenge with large conferences, I was then faced with the dilemma of wanting to go to all three concurrent sessions at the same time. The winner was Crystalline Silica, which was one of the most interesting concurrents I had been to in a long time, so it was a win for me! One thing that I noticed that happened at the British conference that I have not seen before at the Australian conference, was the Regulatory Authority (the HSE in the UK), were present both as delegates and as presenters, which provided great context to the information presented.
The Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) had performed an intervention in the brickmaking and stonemaking industry, with the aim of reducing exposure to respirable crystalline silica. The intervention was basically like a research project to figure out what the common issues were in those industries, so that targeted interventions could be made that would result in less exposure to workers. This is in comparison to the Regulatory enforcement agency just walking in and fining everyone, as the former is more likely to be effective at controlling exposure in the long-term. The HSL discussed common issues surrounding secondary saws and improvements needed in water suppression, opportunities for better enclosures and operator segregation, incorrect use of local exhaust ventilation (LEV), and a poor understanding of the health risk involved with the status quo. To address this, the HSL provided feedback to each of the many sites visited, developed training material to increase awareness, consulted with industry groups, and aims to re-visit these sites next year to asses the effectiveness of their intervention.
The HSL had also performed a study on long latency health risks in foundries, where exposures to over 250 workers were measured. They found that common issues existed surrounding LEV design and testing, respiratory supply and fit-testing, and that some of the foundries still performed dry sweeping or used compressed air to clean out moulds. When you do either of these things, the dust containing crystalline silica will be in the air and therefore easier to inhale and consequently increases your risk of developing respiratory disease and cancer.
For a different perspective, Dr David Fishwick who works in the NHS (the health service) presented a paper on the health aspects of crystalline silica. The HSE are currently funding research into a 5-year health study to understand the prevalence of respiratory disease associated with crystalline silica. It was performed over a large geographical area spread across the UK and identified over 300 workers exposed to crystalline silica. Of those, a large proportion of workers had reported respiratory complaints such as cough, chest-tightness, wheezing, shortness of breath, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and/or silicosis.
To round out the session, the Regulator (the HSE) provided their perspective on the current strategic research. It was refreshing to hear the regulator explain that the surveys and research performed always carried the possibility for possible enforcement, but it was essential that they keep such voluntary surveys workable and continue to rely on industry cooperation mediated through trade associations. Effective and proactive communication was essential to the success of the programs being performed. Basically as I understand it, if the HSL finds issues that are potentially in breach of the Regulations, then they explain that to the company and provide them a report stating what needs to be done. The company is then given a time-limit (around 2 weeks or so) to address the issues before enforcement can occur. The HSE reported that this approach was beneficial and has been working well with representative groups.
Dr Noah Sexias provided a great discussion on the advances in exposure assessment and control for welding fume. In addition to the various hazards faced by welders (such as acute injuries, musculoskeletal issues, electrical burns, and UV radiation), gases and fumes from welding can result in many ill-health effects. These range from respiratory disease such as siderosis and COPD, through to lung cancer (presumably from hexavalent chromium or other metals) and neurological disorders caused from exposure to manganese (known as “manganism“).
Presumably predicting that we had been faced with slide-fatigue, Gerard Hand (IOSH Past President) gave an engaging 45 minute talk without any PPT slides (or notes I might add!). In a very real, yet humorous way, Gerard taught us to always ask, “Is there anything dodgy about that?” when doing a risk assessment. His point was that unless you engage with the workforce and understand what they are doing and ask about their problems and ideas, then it’s highly unlikely that the risk assessment is not going to be accurate or effective.
This session was great…and no, not just because I was in it! From learning about all there is about Radon gas from Damien Boyd, to Dougie Collin igniting the independence debate in full Scottish kilt, to the tale of Green Eggs and Ham by Mary Fitzgerald, learning the wrongs of LEV discharge stacks from Bill Williams, and learning the occupational hygiene considerations when confiscating marijuana by Kelvin Williams, there was never a dull moment!
Another great item at the British conference that I have not seen before at the Australian conference was the various workshops held throughout the conference. I attended a fantastic workshop facilitated by Alex Wilson on professional skills for occupational hygienists, and a packed-out interactive workshop which aimed to bring real positive change for workers at risk of occupational lung disease such as workers in the construction industry, welders, spray painters, and bakers.
I love a good poster. Dr Latham Ball won the prize for best poster, and deservedly so. He is currently working with a team of others (including Kate Jones) to develop a low-cost rapid test kit to measure exposure to benzene through biological monitoring. Biological monitoring is very important to assess exposure to benzene as it can be absorbed both through the skin and also inhaled. At the moment in Australia, it can take several weeks for these results to come back, which is tricky if the results are high and you have just figured out that your workers were not protected for the past two weeks. A quick low-cost test would help track just how effective your control measures are without having to cross your fingers while you wait for the results to come back.
Some would say the highlight of the conference is the networking and various social events on offer, and BOHS14 did not disappoint. Being held in Nottingham, It was always going to be compulsory for Robin Hood to join us. We were treated to a night with the Sherrif of Nottingham, a court jester, and of course, Mr Hood himself.
This was my very first BOHS conference and I came here knowing only a handful of people (some I had only ever spoken to via email!), but it was a warm, encouraging, and inviting atmosphere. To be honest, I had to do a double-take sometimes as I felt as though I could have been at the AIOH Conference surrounded by old friends, it was that familiar.
Of course there were many other sessions at the conference that were amazing including Legionella control, occupational hygiene considerations in hydraulic fracking, and many others. Each one provided a great wealth of information and were engaging. If you need an excuse to go to London (who needs an excuse?), you’ll just have to attend the next conference which is held between April 25th-30th in 2015. Next year, the BOHS is extra-fortunate to hold their conference in conjunction with IOHA, which means it will be even bigger, and even better than this years…if that is at all possible!