An estimated 17,000 new cases of work-related breathing or lung problems are reported in the UK every year, with around 30% being diagnosed as asthma, according to the Health and Safety Executive. If you notice new asthma symptoms at work, or your childhood asthma has recurred, this number could include you.
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The condition is caused by breathing in substances and allergens like chemicals, dust, fumes and animal fur.
According to the government’s Labour Force Survey, two major groups of workers are most prone to occupational asthma: plant, process and machine operatives and skilled trade occupations.
Workplaces where it can be an issue
Workplaces where there are high levels of irritants or allergens put employees more at risk. The most common allergens include latex used in healthcare environments, flour dust and additives, animal fur and dust from animal enclosures. The most common cause among agricultural employees is grain and poultry dust. In hospitals, particles and vapours from surgical techniques are a major cause.
The main occupational irritants include bleach used in hairdressing salons, chemicals used in spray-painting vehicles, the wood dust produced when sanding or machining and the fumes, vapours and mists caused by engineering, electronic and metal work.
Fumes from adhesives and chlorine in indoor swimming pools are also irritants.
What are the symptoms of occupational asthma?
The main symptoms to look out for include coughing, wheezing and a tight feeling in your chest. You’re likely to get short of breath and suffer from an inflammation of the nose. You may also suffer from conjunctivitis.
If you notice any of the symptoms and suspect work-related asthma, see your GP immediately. Before going to the appointment, prepare as much information as possible about your condition and your medical and workplace history to help with the diagnosis.
When you become sensitive to substances at work, this can trigger the asthma symptoms as soon as you are in contact with them.
Are there any treatments?
Employees must take action as soon as they notice symptoms. Ignoring the problem leads to a greater likelihood of developing long-term asthma, even when away from the workplace.
A GP can prescribe different types of inhalers to help. A preventer inhaler will combat the underlying inflammation, while a reliever inhaler will control the symptoms if they come on.
How serious is this condition?
The HSE studied data for employees suffering from occupational asthma between 2010 and 2019 and discovered vehicle paint technicians had the highest number of cases, at 42 per 100,000 employees, followed by bakers and flour confectioners at 35 per 100,000.
Other industries where cases were most prevalent over the decade included manufacturing food products, vehicle manufacturing, chemical workers and metal workers.
In the UK, workplaces on average suffer a 21% productivity loss due to employees needing sick leave due to asthma. This includes employees who had asthma symptoms before starting the job and others who developed the condition after. It has become the most prevalent chronic respiratory disease, affecting 358 million people worldwide.
According to scientific research carried out at workplaces across Europe, 59% of people with asthma reported having had at least one day’s absence from work in one year due to their condition.
A survey by the charity Asthma UK has found 42% of people in a “clinically vulnerable” group due to asthma have told their employer they have the condition, yet still feel they are being put in “high risk” areas of the workplace without the necessary protection.
How can employers reduce the risks?
Employers must minimise exposure to hazardous substances under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. They must explain any risks to new employees before they start work. A new employee should have a health check that includes a breathing test when starting a job where there’s a risk.
Further health checks should be carried out annually to make sure staff aren’t developing occupational asthma. If the condition begins, the employer must notify the HSE. Employers must do what they can to help affected employees.
They can move the employee to a different role, so they aren’t exposed to asthma triggers. They should replace any hazardous substances or products that are triggering asthma in the workforce with harmless alternatives. They should also provide workers with Personal Protective Equipment, such as masks, to stop them from inhaling any irritants.
Creating cleaner air
Many industrial employers use dust extraction products to protect the workforce from hazardous workplace dust. Downdraught benches provide dust collection systems for the workspace.
Products such as VertEx cross-draught systems and booths create a workplace where employees can work without the risk of dangerous exposure. Using air cleaning systems as well will capture any remaining particles of dust, providing total all-around protection in the workplace.
The majority of employers will do everything possible to help. If they don’t do anything, employees can talk to their workplace health and safety representative, or trade union, for advice.
Anyone who has contracted occupational asthma may be entitled to compensation or benefits, such as Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit, depending on the severity of their illness.