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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 April, 2004, 06:11 GMT 07:11 UK
The dangers of inhaling at work
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News Online business reporter

Smokers complain of the "nanny state"

The ruling by a Norwegian court on Wednesday that smoking while working is a basic human right clashes head-on with the medical profession's insistence that smoking bans in the workplace could save thousands of lives each year.

On 1 January, public sector workers in the small town of Levanger were banned from smoking during working hours.

And not only at the workplace, either.

The ban extended to workers' breaks, wherever they were - even while on business trips abroad or driving their own cars.

"Nanny state!" cried critics.

And just weeks ahead of Norway's forthcoming blanket ban on smoking in public places the judges agreed, declaring the ban illegal.

Irish parliamentarian John Deasy would have guffawed.

Last month - hours after Ireland banned smoking in the workplace - he was fired from his job after lighting up inside the parliamentary members bar.

At the time, many an Irish smoker saw him as a martyr.

Voluntary restraints

Attempts by governments to protect workers against lung cancer and other respiratory diseases are often met with stern resistance.

Between 35,000 and 45,000 cancer deaths per year are due to exposures occurring in the workplace
Jim Dougal
Head of the European Commission in the UK

Workplace smoking bans are far from universal despite repeated calls for legislation from the medical profession.

Take Scotland, where a third of the adult population smokes.

When earlier this month the chief medical officer, Dr Mac Armstrong, said a workplace smoking ban could save 1,000 lives a year in Glasgow alone, he was met with calls for restraint.

In place of a blanket ban, solutions such as education to prevent people from smoking in the first place or voluntary smoke free areas were put forward.

And so occupational lung diseases continue to present "the most important cause of permanent disability and premature death", according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

This, it says, "represents a huge burden on national economies and compensations schemes".

Invisible threats

In fairness, though, while smoking is very visible, tobacco fumes are joined by a wide range of other dangerous substances inhaled at work.

"If you're in an office, smoking may be a big problem, but if you're in a foundry or a mine there are other, perhaps more serious problems," says Jukka Takala, director of the ILO's safety, health and environment programme.

Asbestos warning leaflet
Work related respiratory diseases could be prevented
The ILO estimates that every day millions of workers are exposed to contaminated air in both industry and agriculture - whether by asbestos dust - which causes cancer, rock or coal dust - which clogs up the lungs, or cotton dust - which causes allergic and asthmatic reactions.

And the problems are not isolated in quarries and factories, ship building yards and the construction industry.

Nor is it merely a problem for people in poor countries where technologies and processes used are often obsolete and intrinsically dangerous.

"These problems are everywhere in the world," says Mr Takala.

The ILO estimates that 30,000 asbestos-induced cancers, most of them deadly, occur every year in the industrialised countries of Western Europe, North America, Japan and Australia.

Then there are the problems caused by inhaling chemical fumes from glues and substances found in modern office furniture and building materials.

"The cheaper the material, the more likely they will be to have this sort of stuff," says Mr Takala, who believes dangerous gasses are often emitted from everyday items such as office telephones or laminate desks.

"Most people take the cheaper material," he says.


But while it is increasingly apparent that breathing at work is a risky business, there are also ways to reduce the risks.

One occupational death from cancer costs an average of 1.4m and the cost of such deaths across the European Union is more than 47bn a year
Jim Dougal
Head of the European Commission in the UK

A crucial first step should be to inform people of the risks they are faced with, the ILO believes.

But beyond this, governments must also take action by coordinating and implementing action programmes to eliminate the causes of respiratory disease.

"Current advances in science and technology make these diseases among the most preventable," the ILO insists.


In Europe, action is being taken.

Last month, the European Commission announced plans to consult workers and employers groups in a move to tackle the problem of cancer caused by for example passive smoking in the workplace, or by inhaling wood dust or diesel exhaust fumes while at work.

"An estimated 32 million workers in the EU are exposed to substances that cause cancer and have other harmful effects, and at levels that exceed what is considered as safe," the Commission says.

"Between 35,000 and 45,000 cancer deaths per year are due to exposures occurring in the workplace," according to Jim Dougal, head of the European Commission in the UK.

And over time, reducing the risks could even save tax payers money.

"One occupational death from cancer costs an average of 1.4m and the cost of such deaths across the European Union is more than 47bn a year," says Mr Dougal.

"This is quite clearly unacceptable [so it is] time for European governments and employers to better protect their workers."

Should smoking at work be allowed?
No, smoking kills
Only in smoking rooms
Yes, it is a human right
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