Occupational safety and health (OSH) is one of the spearheads of the Laboratoire national de santé (LNS). Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, OSH has remained a highly-ranked feature on the daily agenda of the Environmental Hygiene and Human Biological Monitoring service, which is one of the three units hosted in the Department of Health Protection.
The Environmental Hygiene and Human Biological monitoring service, headed by Dr sc. Radu Corneliu Duca, stands for international excellence in healthy workplaces in Luxembourg. Dr sc. Duca is an expert in the monitoring of hazardous substances in the air, such as solvents, particulate matter, heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and pesticides. In addition, he has an impressive track record in the monitoring of hazardous substances in the urine, blood and hair of humans, a specialisation also known as human biomonitoring (HBM). We talk to him about safety and health at work.
Following the International Labour Organization (ILO), OSH is defined as “the science of the anticipation, recognition, evaluation and control of hazards, arising in or from the workplace that could impair the health and wellbeing of workers. OSH inherently also accounts for the possible impact on the surrounding communities and the global environment”. Alternatively, to put it succinctly, OSH entails promoting and maintaining the highest degree of physical, mental and social wellbeing of workers, and this all along the diverse work environments. OSH thus encompasses a large number of disciplines and diverse workplace and environmental hazards.
In recent years, the LNS has evolved from a traditional state laboratory to a first-class servicing entity that always has the well-being of the patients and citizens as a first priority. Excellence and practical relevance go hand in hand. With this in mind, the Department of Health Protection was restructured in the first half of 2019. For the Environmental Hygiene and Human Biological Monitoring Unit, a strategic four-year plan was set up based on three pillars: “Indoor Pollution”, “Human Biomonitoring (HBM)”, and “Occupational Hygiene”. As such, the current Unit is developing gradually towards a full Unit for Environmental and Occupational Health.
Indoor pollution and human biomonitoring are two areas of competence that already existed for longer time in the Unit. Both pillars have been seen their size and type of activities substantially expanded, and continue to strive for innovation and excellence. The Occupational Hygiene pillar is a new addition. As it is becoming increasing evident that one’s exposure during lifetime has a major impact on future health and co-morbidity, this new axis will provide a response to the emerging needs of a coordinated approach in this regard. It goes without saying that one’s work is integrally part of this life-time exposure.
On a practical note, after being contacted by a company, the LNS goes on-site to take all industrial hygiene samples, for example samples of air, of inhalable and respirable dust, and/or of surface contamination. Samples are then analysed at the LNS to determine the concentrations of chemical hazardous substances. Depending on the type of the company’s activity and the initial problem, these analyses may include metals such as chromium and lead, but also organic contaminants, including solvents, polycyclic-aromatic hydrocarbons and pesticides.
In the case of problems being detected in the industrial hygiene samples that may have an impact on the health of workers, the LNS would also take human biological samples, e.g. blood, urine and hair. In these biological matrices, the LNS would again determine the concentrations of the substances or their metabolites. This is also known as Human Biomonitoring (HBM). Ultimately, it is only when substances enter the human body that they can cause damage to health and cause health problems. The need for HBM is emerging quickly as a tool to evaluate several factors, for example whether personal protection equipment is working efficiently. Take the case of an industry with exposure to solvents. As a company, you can take all kind of collective and individual prevention measures to limit the exposure to solvents for your workers. However, by regularly determining the concentrations of solvents or their metabolites in the workers’ blood or urine, you can prove immediately whether the individual masks, suits and/or respiratory protection material are efficient and prohibit the entrance of solvents in the human body.
All the employers we work with in Luxembourg are very committed to improving the safety and health of their workplaces. As a first step, the LNS conducts on-site visits to the company to listen to the needs and problems of its clients and elaborate a step-by-step approach hand in hand with the company. In case of increased concentrations in the industrial samples that may pose problems for health being detected, the LNS reaches out to the occupational medicine doctor in charge, and this together with the company.
Occupational settings often represent a wide variation of situations and complex interactions as well as several stressors. By measuring what’s going on both outside and inside the human body, with testing being conducted by the same laboratory, the employer and the employees have a global idea of the situation. As such, employer, employees and the occupational health services in charge (including Service de Santé au Travail Multisectoriel (STM), Service de Santé au Travail de l’Industrie (STI) and Division de la santé au travail du secteur public) can focus on the elements that are the root cause of the issues. As the LNS, we will support them through this journey and together elaborate solutions and work towards improvement.
This project is according an excellent example of the fruitful results that can come out of the more close collaboration amongst companies, occupational health services, and the LNS. In the EU Chromate Project, we are working together with partners from the European Consortium HBM4EU to determine the occupational exposure to chromium (VI), a genotoxic metal. The LNS has successfully implemented the European standardised operating procedures in Luxembourg, and this in collaboration with the Service de Santé au Travail Multisectoriel (STM). Based on the preliminary results from the global statistical analyses at the European level, it would seem that the EU binding Occupational Exposure Limit of 0.005 mg/m3 for welding or plasma-cutting processes is in most cases already achieved in Luxembourg. Therefore, it seems that Luxembourgish industries where welding or plasma-cutting processes occurs have already put in place appropriate protection measures for their workers. As such, these initiatives clearly illustrate that, together, we can make huge steps towards ensuring implementation and follow-up of EU Directive 2004/37/EC on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to carcinogens or mutagens at work, and as such protect and further improve workers’ occupational safety and health in Luxembourg, and this in alignment with our European colleagues.