Asthma at Work

Occupational 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.

Let 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.
  • There is also the Workplace Charter that is a list of recommendations to reduce the impact of asthma in the workplace.

Occupational Asthma

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 the night
  • your symptoms improve when you have been away from work for several days (for example when you are on holiday).

Which substances cause occupational asthma?

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 across them.

  • 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 and sawmilling.
  • 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.

Preventing occupational asthma

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 alternative
  • 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 in
  • 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.

Help 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 you can:

  • raise the issue with the person responsible for health and safety in your workplace
  • tell your manager about your concerns
  • 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.

How 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 diagnosed?

Occupational asthma may be diagnosed:

  • 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.

Compensation for occupational asthma

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.

More help

The Health 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 SE1 9HS.

Jobs you can and can't do

if you have enough determination 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.

Job 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

The DDA 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 website.

The key to gaining protection under this Act is whether the definition of a ‘disabled person’ applies to you.

The DDA (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 trivial
  • 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 Equality and Human Rights Commission for further advice. Helpline: England 0845 604 6610, Scotland 0845 604 5510, Wales 0845 604 8810

Smoking at Work

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.

What you need to know about asthma
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