University of Leicester eBulletin

Occupational Exposure to Chemicals

April 2002

No 85   

Variability and Susceptibility in Human Response to Occupational Exposure to Chemicals in the UK is published today (19 April 2002) by the Medical Research Council's Institute for Environment and Health (MRC IEH), based at the University of Leicester. It examines the current composition and diversity of the British workforce who may be exposed to chemicals during the course of their work and the factors that may contribute to an individual's susceptibility (sensitivity) to such exposures. 

The report concludes that the variability (differences between individuals) and susceptibility to chemicals of individuals making up the current UK workforce is unlikely to be significantly different from that of the general adult UK population.

The UK workforce is protected from the harmful effects of chemicals by a range of control strategies, exposure limits, guidance values and codes of practice. Such regulatory activities must be underpinned by up-to-date scientific information to remain useful.

The Health and Safety Executive therefore commissioned the MRC IEH to examine the current state of knowledge about the variability and susceptibility of the current UK workforce, and to highlight gaps in scientific understanding that could be targeted in future research programmes. The report makes a number of recommendations about how this might be done to inform future approaches to the regulation of occupational chemicals.

The report is based on an expert workshop that considered a range of factors, from the changing demography of the UK workforce to biological variability and lifestyle factors such as obesity and the use of alcohol. Experts at the workshop looked at a number of health and lifestyle factors that could determine why people in similar jobs might have a different susceptibility to the chemicals with which they work. 

Dr Len Levy from MRC IEH who co-chaired the workshop said: "The last 20 years have seen major changes in the nature of work in the UK, particularly a reduction in traditional manufacturing industries and a trend towards service-based industries. In addition, people change jobs more frequently, no longer think of a job as being for life and may now expect to continue working beyond the currently accepted retirement age. 

"Such changing work patterns might mean that today' s workers are exposed to a greater variety of occupational chemicals than in the past, and the decline in body function and general fitness that comes with age may affect the impact of chemical exposures in the older working population. 

"So it's important to understand who makes up the workforce, how their individuality may influence their responses to the work they do and what impact existing health, medication or behaviour such as smoking, might have. We are delighted to have worked with HSE on this important initiative and feel confident we have a sound scientific basis when it comes to improving ways to protect workers. We hope the report will be valuable to all those involved in setting workplace standards in the UK and elsewhere" 

For further information please contact Dr Len Levy on (0116) 2231630, Notes to Editors A copy of the Executive Summary is attached. Copies of this publication can be obtained from the MRC Institute for Environment and Health at the above address at a cost of 10.00. Contact Miriam Turner, Marketing Executive/Production Editor, MRC Institute for Environment and Health, 94 Regent Road, Leicester, LE1 7DD.

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