Asthma at Work
asthma, as it is known, affects
up to 3,000 people a year who develop asthma because they are exposed
to dangerous substances at work. 750,000 people with asthma find
that things at work make their asthma worse. There are 4.3 million
adults with asthma in the UK. In most cases their asthma is not
caused by work, but there can be things at work that make things
worse, even to the point of triggering an asthma attack.
us try and understand what can cause
asthma at work, what you can do to prevent it, and what you can
expect your employer to do to help.
- Occupational asthma - some substances
at work can actually cause asthma. We
need information on occupational asthma, its causes,
how to prevent it, what employers need to do, how it is diagnosed
and where you can go for more help.
- People with asthma at work
need advice about careers and avoiding triggers at work.
is also the Workplace Charter that
is a list of recommendations to reduce the impact of asthma
in the workplace.
Some substances that you
might come across at work can actually cause asthma. The condition
can take weeks, months or even years to develop, depending on the
person and the substance.
If you think your asthma
has been caused by something at work, look out for these clues:
- your asthma symptoms
are worse during the working week, at work or after work
- your symptoms may get
worse after work, or you may find your sleep is disturbed during
- your symptoms improve
when you have been away from work for several days (for example
when you are on holiday).
Which substances cause occupational
Substances that can cause
asthma are called respiratory sensitisers. Below is a list of some
of the main ones and the jobs where you are most likely to come
- Chemicals called isocyanates
are the most common cause of occupational asthma in the UK.
There are many jobs in which you might be exposed to these chemicals,
particularly spray painting, foam moulding using adhesives,
and making foundry cores and surface coatings.
- Working in a bakery:
flour can be a trigger for asthma and be a cause of occupational
asthma. Dust from flour and grain (pictured). Industrial baking,
farm work and grain transport
- Wood dust, particularly
from hard wood dusts and western red cedar. Carpentry, joinery
- Colophony – this
is widely present in soldering fumes but also in glues and some
floor cleaners. Electronics industry
- Dust from latex rubber.
Any job involving latex gloves, such as nursing or dentistry
- Dust from insects and
animals, and from products containing them. Laboratory work,
farm work or work with shellfish
There are over 200 other
respiratory sensitisers and more are being identified all the time.
The Health & Safety Executive
(HSE) publishes a list of the best known offenders. The list
is not exhaustive and will be updated regularly.
You can prevent occupational
asthma by avoiding exposure to respiratory sensitisers. To achieve
this you should follow these steps:
- try to get any respiratory
sensitisers in your workplace removed or replaced with a safe
- if this isn't possible,
your employer can reduce the risk by installing extractor fans
or isolating you from the process that produces the risk –
by putting dangerous chemicals in a fume cupboard, for example.
These steps can reduce the respiratory sensitisers you breathe
- if the above steps aren't
possible, you should wear breathing equipment to stop you inhaling
the respiratory sensitiser.
Often a combination of all
these steps will be needed.
from your employer
Your employer has a legal
duty to deal with respiratory sensitisers in the workplace. This
is set out in the Control
of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1994. Your employer
should carry out a risk assessment and inform you if respiratory
sensitisers are present. You should also be told how to recognise
early signs of occupational asthma.
If you are working with respiratory
sensitisers, it is often necessary to have regular medical checks
so the condition can be spotted early.
Your employer should consult
you (either directly or through your union or employee representative)
about the need to control respiratory sensitisers and triggers and
the steps they plan to take to do this.
Most employers will do what
they can to help. If you don't think that they are doing enough
- raise the issue with
the person responsible for health and safety in your workplace
- tell your manager about
- contact the local HSE
office (or the local council environmental health department)
for advice on what to do next
Your colleagues also have
a legal duty not to do things that endanger your health (such as
smoking near you). Remember that having a legal right doesn't always
mean you can enforce it. Be tactful and choose the right moment
to raise the issue.
do I know I have occupational asthma?
First of all, see your doctor
straight away. If they suspect that you do have occupational asthma,
they should refer you to a specialist. If occupational asthma is
confirmed, your doctor should, with your consent, advise your employer
to relocate you away from the respiratory sensitiser.
Diagnosis of occupational
asthma does not always mean you have to leave your job. Talk to
your employer and health and safety representative about other options
available to you. However, if you feel leaving work is the only
option; you should
make a claim for compensation.
How is occupational asthma
Occupational asthma may be
- if your asthma is worse during the
working week, though not necessarily at work itself or your
symptoms get worse after work, or you find your sleep is disturbed
during the night
- Your symptoms may improve when you have
been away from work for several days or on holiday
- If occupational asthma is suspected,
you should be referred to a specialist.
If you develop asthma because
of your work you should:
- tell your Doctor that you think the asthma
was caused by your work
- tell your manager or safety officer
and ask to record it in the workplace accident book
- tell your union representative. If you
belong to a union they may be able to get you compensation if
your employer is at fault
- make a claim for Industrial Injuries
Disablement Benefit from the Benefits Agency. The Benefits Agency
pays between £20 and £100 a week to people who have
asthma that has been caused by certain respiratory sensitisers.
There is a list of these in the relevant Benefits Agency booklet
(NI 237). If your respiratory sensitiser isn't on the list,
you can still claim as long as it is a 'known sensitiser'. A
complete list of known respiratory sensitisers is available
from the HSE.
It is important to claim
your benefit as soon as possible. Payments will probably only start
from the day you claim, not the day that you found out you had asthma.
If you want to take legal action against your employer, your lawyer
must act within three years of diagnosis.
and Safety Executive (HSE) publishes a lot of good, clear advice
about how to prevent occupational asthma. It also employs Medical
Inspectors who can give on-the-spot advice to your employer, and
make sure your employer is obeying the law.
In some workplaces, such
as shops, offices or hotels, your local council's Environmental
Health Office will provide the same service.
You can get HSE
publications from HSE Books on 01787 881165; advice from the HSE
InfoLine on 0845 345 0055 (calls are in confidence); or write to
HSE at their Headquarters: Rose Court, 2 Southwark Bridge, London
you can and can't do
if you have
then there is
no reason why you should not
have almost any career you want. Until 2004, there were some restrictions
on joining the Ambulance Service, Fire Service and Police Force,
but changes to the law made it illegal for employers to discriminate
against someone because of their disability. Applications are now
considered on their merits.
However, this legislation
does not apply to combat roles in the Armed Forces, which will not
accept anyone who has asthma at the time of applying, though they
may consider you if you have not needed treatment in the last four
years. Even in these circumstances, the Royal Air Force will consider
you for ground service only; you will not be able to join aircrew.
Additionally, there are many
other jobs where you might come across triggers that could cause
you problems. It’s a matter of common sense whether you take
such jobs. If, for example, flour dust is one of your triggers then
you may want to avoid working as a baker.
Your employer has a general
duty to protect you from asthma triggers. This may not always be
possible and, if it’s really affecting you, it might be worth
considering another job. Talk to your doctor about changes you can
make to you medication to help you.
Refusal Due to Asthma
It is unlikely that your
job application would be rejected just because you have asthma,
unless your asthma would make it impossible for you to do the job.
There is legislation that
may protect your position in applying for a job, and maintaining
a job, if your asthma is considered to be a disability. The Disability
Discrimination Act (DDA) (2005) prohibits discrimination against
disabled people in a range of circumstances including employment.
Under the DDA
it is unlawful for employers to discriminate against disabled people
for a reason related to their disability, covering:
- Application forms
- Interview arrangements
- Proficiency tests
- Job offers
- Terms of employment
- Promotion, transfer or training opportunities
- Work-related benefits such as access
to recreation or refreshment facilities
- Dismissal or redundancy
also places a duty on employers to consider making ‘reasonable
adjustments’ to make sure you’re not put at a substantial
disadvantage by employment arrangements or any physical feature
of the workplace. For further information on the types of ‘reasonable
adjustments’ you can visit the Directgov
The key to gaining protection
under this Act is whether the definition of a ‘disabled person’
applies to you.
(2005) defines a disabled person as someone who has a physical
or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse
effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.
- Substantial means neither minor nor
- Long term means that the effect of the
impairment has lasted or is likely to last for at least 12 months
(there are special rules covering recurring or fluctuating conditions)
- Normal day-to-day activities include
everyday things like eating, washing, walking and going shopping
- A normal day-to-day activity must affect
one of the 'capacities' listed in the Act which include mobility,
manual dexterity, speech, hearing, seeing and memory
It is acknowledged that
there is often no defining moment when a health issue becomes a
disability. Some people may not consider themselves as disabled
or use that term about themselves, yet they may still be entitled
to protection against being treated unfairly.
If you are unsure about whether
you are entitled to protection under the DDA you can contact the
and Human Rights Commission for further advice. Helpline: England
0845 604 6610, Scotland 0845 604 5510, Wales 0845 604 8810
Tobacco smoke can aggravate
asthma symptoms or trigger an attack. According to a
survey, tobacco smoke is a trigger for more than 80 per cent
of people with asthma. Although smoking is now banned in the UK
from most workplaces
you may find that people smoke near you at work, when outside,
the best approach is to explain your situation and rely on
their good nature. Ask them to smoke at a specified time when you
can be in a different area.
Under the Workplace
(Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, employers have
to ensure that non-smokers are protected from discomfort caused
by tobacco smoke in rest rooms and rest areas.