Some people who suffer from asthma find that it is made worse by exposure to certain substances in the workplace.
However, occupational asthma describes a condition which arises only because of your work – that is, you hadn’t suffered any asthma symptoms in the past.
Unfortunately, it can take two years (or in some cases even longer) for symptoms of occupational asthma to become apparent or at least serious enough for you to visit a doctor.
This is because your immune system can take some time to develop a response to an allergen (or asthma-causing agent) when it is first exposed to the substance. Once it has this allergen in its “memory”, it can then trigger asthma symptoms when it finds itself under attack from the substance again.
Doctors are still not sure why some people develop a response to certain irritants or allergens while others don’t – but it’s important that as soon as you make the connection between your asthma symptoms and an allergen, you avoid further contact with it.
This can be difficult in certain jobs but the length of time that your body is subjected to an allergen can have a major effect on the condition.
If you stop the exposure almost immediately there is a good chance that the asthma symptoms will go away fairly quickly and never return whereas if you continue to be exposed to the substance, it could cause serious asthma symptoms and it will certainly take a lot longer for you to recover once you avoid the allergen.
Your employer has a legal responsibility to limit exposure to any possible asthma-causing agents as far as possible and any cases of occupational asthma must be reported to the Health & Safety Executive. HSE will usually visit the workplace to see if there is some way to reduce the risk of other people suffering occupational asthma from the same substance in the future.
It is thought that around 3,000 people in the UK develop occupational asthma every year and researchers are now looking into the connection between the condition and certain jobs as part of a project funded by Asthma UK.
Of course, for people in certain occupations, the news that they have occupational asthma can mean they need to find work outside their current company. If possible, employers should try to find alternative work for asthma sufferers but in some cases this just isn’t possible.
However, they may be prepared to pay you some compensation for the loss of your job and you may be eligible for a small amount of compensation from the Benefits Agency. You might also want to consider legal action against your employer in certain circumstances and can find out more about this from the Citizens Advice Bureau.
What Causes Occupational Asthma?
The list of agents which are capable of causing occupational asthma is already long and growing all the time as a result of new research.
The condition could be caused by common factors such as dust, fumes or certain gases but there are many others which affect people in a huge range of occupations, including:
- Animal handlers
- Furniture restorers
- Electronics workers
Regulations governing materials which are hazardous to health (COSHH regulations) stipulate that employers must ensure that all equipment controls are kept in good condition. There should be supervision of certain tasks or equipment use, exhaust ventilation systems must be in good working order and employees at risk should wear protective gloves.
If you begin working for a company where you might be exposed to hazardous substances, you should be asked to fill in a questionnaire when you start work relating to any asthma or breathing problems in the past and your employer should check again in a reasonable amount of time that no symptoms of asthma have appeared.
In some cases, the use of a face mask or breathing equipment may be advised by HSE and employers must always ensure that the correct ventilation is installed and working properly.
Common Substances Can be the Culprit
Substances which can cause asthma do not need to be unusual or regarded as ‘toxic’ or poisonous. Many people working with wood, such as joiners, are at risk from wood dust/shavings, laboratory staff are at risk from the ingredients in certain drugs and those working with food could be affected by flour dust. Certain paints, common cleaning products and manufacturing processes can also lead to illness.
People who don’t usually work with any substance likely to cause asthma should ensure that they always read the label when dealing with a new substance. Often, packaging for a substance will highlight the potential for harm if inhaled.
Always ensure that you wear the recommended protective clothing or mask.