Occupational Asthma, What You Need To Know!

Posted By Kerry Anderson on 2016-01-07 17:00

Occupational Asthma

How many of you know that Occupational Asthma is one of the most commonly reported work related diseases in numerous countries? Or how many of you know what Occupational asthma is and how is it caused or exacerbated?

Occupational asthma is caused/exacerbated by exposure to irritants/substances in the workplace. 

Types of occupational asthma

There are two types of occupational asthma and each type is dependent upon the cause. The most common type of occupational asthma is Allergic Occupational Asthma, it is triggered by allergens such as dust, animals, car fumes, paint fumes.  Allergens are called respiratory sensitizers as they cause changes in your airways to become hypersensitive. 

It can take days, weeks, months or even years to become sensitised to an allergen but once you have, the next time you come into contact with it, it can trigger an asthma attack/symptoms.
Isocyanates and amylase are the most common examples of sensitizers in the UK.
 
Irritant induced asthma is not as common as allergic asthma and usually happens during incidents such as chemical spills where the employee breathes in a chemical that irritates the airways. Chlorine used in swimming pools and ammonia are examples of irritant chemicals. If you would like some more information on substances that can cause occupational asthma, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) publishes a list of the best known ones on their website. www.hse.gov.uk
 

Early recognition is key

It is highly important that occupational asthma is recognised at early onset, the early identification with appropriate intervention can lead to the possibility that the asthma will clear completely. Early intervention examples are to eliminate the exposure completely or add control measures to ensure as less exposure as possible, including removing the employee from the exposure and placing them in a separate work area. 
 
I’m sure many of you already know that asthma causes coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, breathing difficulties, eye irritation, runny nose and nasal congestion and a person can experience all or some of these symptoms. 

The effects of occupational asthma

The effect of occupational asthma, allergic or irritant, has the same possible outcomes, many employees’ will need to change their job resulting in a loss of income, not only does this result in the loss for the employee, the company will also suffer lost profits due to absence from the job whilst appointing someone new. 

Sick leave related to occupational asthma

Sick leave is estimated at around 14 days per year, per employee for work related asthma, again loss of earnings and profit for both the employee and the company. It would also be worthy to mention the possibility of the effects on mental health and well-being as I am sure you can sympathise with a person who cannot breathe easily and is living with a potential life threatening disease.

 
Controlling the risk of occupational asthma

Although I doubt occupational asthma will ever be completely eradicable, there are ways that can help control the exposure and in some cases eliminate it completely. Comprehensive risk assessments of the workplace (required by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations), would be the first port of call as they are with any work related hazards. Eliminate the exposure completely is always the next best thing if at all possible, if not ensure the correct control measures are in place as soon as is reasonably practicable. Staff training on awareness and reporting procedures is a must and this should be recurrent every 6-12 months for refresher knowledge.

Occupational health surveillance

A good health surveillance programme should be in place for employees’ who are exposed in the workplace which can’t be completely eradicated or brought down to a low enough level where exposure will not cause the onset of asthma regardless of their susceptibility.  This will give markers of early onset of occupational asthma in employees’ and the retraction of an employee from that work environment can clear the asthma completely.
Make sure you back up a health surveillance programme with a solid Health & Safety Policy.  You need to ensure there is a clear line for referral or investigation for employees’ with exposure or a potential allergy to workplace substances.
 

Use PPE effectively

Everyone is surely aware of the good old Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), however what good is respiratory protection if it doesn’t face fit correctly, or work correctly?  Be vigilant with PPE, train your employees’ on how to use/wear it correctly otherwise it completely defies the object, monitor usage with supervisory roles and enforce usage!
 
You may think that the cost of all of the above is contradictory to your company profits but sickness absence and court claims are far more damaging ,not only to the bank balance but to the respectability and reputation of your business! If you have any questions about occupational health surveillance services in the UK, or you are looking for health and safety services in Leicester or across the UK, don't hesitate to call us on 01455 234 600 or contact us online. 

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