Workplace Health and Safety

Globemaster
Aircraft Structures Technician Corporal Michael Glennon paints part of a CC-177 Globemaster wing from a suspended platform during a Home Station Check (HSC) wearing protective gear during the process. Photo: Sgt Gaétan Racine, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

LCol Richard Hannah, 1 CAD Surgeon

In recent years, there has been a great deal of attention focused on improving the safety of the workplace. This is true in the industrial and corporate realms to the government and military worlds, and has greatly increased the overall safety of employees.

Within the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), and specifically the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), members of a variety of trades, including Aircraft Structures (ACS) Technicians, have expressed concerns about exposure to chemicals or processes that could negatively impact their health. This is completely understandable given the volume of information online and in mainstream media. While these concerns are certainly valid, the unfortunate reality is that much of the available information can be misleading, or downright inaccurate, which in turn fuels concern among front-line workers.

To address these concerns, Colonel Andrew Wedgwood, the A4 Maintenance Director at 1 Canadian Air Division HQ in Winnipeg, approached me to provide some information, with the aim of building understanding about the health-focused realities of the conditions our technicians work in on a daily basis.

First and foremost, the health of our people is my top priority. As a physician who has spent most of my medical career in preventative and occupational medicine, I can assure you that CAF Health Services is committed to making sure that the health of all of our members is protected. Noting that, here are some facts that all of our members should keep in mind when thinking about health risks in the workplace:

• In recent years, both the civilian and military worlds have made tremendous progress in understanding and either reducing or eliminating many of the things that put the health and safety of workers at risk. This includes everything from improved ventilation and the use of less harmful chemicals to fall restraint systems and safer storage practices. The important thing to remember is that, no matter how dangerous something may seem, if there is no exposure, there is no harm.

• Improved training, along with better policies, rules and regulations, have been very successful in dramatically reducing the number and severity of workplace health and safety incidents.

• Personal protective equipment (PPE) has improved significantly over the years, with better respirators, HEPA filters and easier-to-wear designs which have greatly improved worker safety.

There is a common perception that medical surveillance in the workplace should be as simple as testing everyone in a specific trade for every known possible exposure. Unfortunately, this approach has several serious and potentially harmful drawbacks. Medical testing is a complicated process, which involves looking at many different indicators and being alert for false positives/negatives (false indicators that there is or isn’t a problem), which are not uncommon with the screening technology and techniques currently available.

The current approach to occupational health medical surveillance is a four-step process: Conducting occupational and environmental health assessments to identify exposures in the workplace; assessing those exposures and determining whether medical surveillance is recommended or required (using standard international guidelines); determining the requirements for medical testing, should medical surveillance proceed; and assessing the results of testing and actioning any follow-up requirements.

One of the biggest challenges is in step three, given the complexities of accurately assessing what is needed for any given medical surveillance program, as it is challenging . To address this, Col. Wedgewood and his team have been working with my office and Force Health Protection on a plan to gather a comprehensive list of potential ACS Tech tasks and exposures. Members will then use an on line electronic survey tool that is filled out before coming to a medical appointment (similar to what is done on many Wings on paper). However, in the electronic form when a task or exposure is identified it will prompt the user for additional information such as how often. The tool can then provide the physician and patient with a list of potential exposures, which will help the physician better determine whether specific focused testing should be considered.

To support this, the Air Division Surgeon external website was updated and smart phone application was developed to accommodate this new electronic tool. This step is now nearly completed and the website can be viewed at www.aerospacemedicine.ca. The next step is to adapt the paper-based surveys into the electronic form. Work on this part of the project has been ongoing, and will be trialed in 2020. If it is successful, it will pushed nationally for ACS Techs, hopefully by the end of 2020.

As a physician, the protection and preservation of health in our personnel is always my foremost priority, and the well-being of our technicians is also of the utmost importance to Col. Wedgwood. We know that you, as a community, have concerns; we have heard those concerns, and are working to address them. We ask that you continue to communicate with us on your concerns, and work with us going forward. The health and safety of our community can only be assured through the actions and measures taken to provide a healthy and protective work environment, and that is something that can only be achieved collaboratively.