Having asthma at work


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 their asthma symptoms worse, even to the point of triggering an asthma attack. In fact, 43% of people with asthma report that their condition can get in the way of them doing their job.

Asthma UK asked people with asthma if things at work made their asthma worse - 40% said 'yes', citing the following:

  • dust 62%
  • cigarette smoke 38%
  • stress 27%
  • chemicals 19%
  • fumes 17%
  • perfumes/air fresheners 14%

If you already have asthma and you're thinking about starting work or moving jobs, there are some of the things you might want to consider.

Getting a job

When considering what type of job to go for, it's important to think about what you are able to do as well as what you're interested in. There are jobs where you might come across triggers that could cause your symptoms to flare up. For example, if flour dust is one of your triggers, you may want to avoid working in a bakery.

Your employer should make reasonable adjustments to protect you from triggers. However, this may not always be possible and, if these triggers are really affecting you, it might be worth considering another job. Talk to your doctor about changes you can make to your medicines to help you.

There are some jobs you may not be able to do such as working in the armed forces or fire bridgade. This is because asthma can reappear after a symptom- free period, which could put both the person with asthma and their colleagues in danger.

If you've been free from asthma symptoms for more than four years and this is recorded in your medical notes, you can apply to the Army, the Royal Navy, or the RAF (ground crew), but selection will ultimately depend on an individual assessment by a service medical specialist. The RAF won't consider anyone with a history of asthma for aircrew service. More information can be obtained from the following websites:

Police forces and the fire brigade assess each applicant individually, and assessment includes a medical examination.

Should I tell my employer that I have asthma?

The Equality Act 2010 says that someone cannot be treated unfairly just because they have a disability. This means an employer cannot refuse to employ you just because you have asthma.

It's up to you whether you tell your employer that you have asthma. Employers will ask you about your health or disability on your application form, to enable them to make reasonable adjustments for you at the interview stage. However, you don't have to disclose your condition at this point. Once you have passed the interview, and they have offered you the job, the employer may ask you to complete a medical questionnaire with appropriate health-related questions. It's 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.

Managing your asthma at work

There are steps that you can take to help you to manage your asthma at work and ensure you are getting the support you need.

  • If you choose to inform your employer about your condition, they can make reasonable adjustments to enable you to do your job. These may include assessing and minimising asthma triggers in your working environment. Your employer cannot make reasonable adjustments unless you disclose your condition.
  • Inform your colleagues about your asthma, and what to do in an asthma attack. A simple explanation is all that is necessary.
  • Ensure you have your reliever inhaler with you at work, and to hand should you need it.
  • Carry an asthma attack card.
  • Your employer should have someone with a first aid qualification on site. Make sure that you know who that is, and that they know what to do in an emergency.

What are my rights?

Equality Act 2010 (not applicable to Northern Ireland)
The Equality Act protects people from discrimination because of certain characteristics, such as age, gender and disability.

Is asthma a disability?
This is a complex question and there's no easy answer, however the definition of disability, which is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, is:

"a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term (ie has lasted or is likely to last for at least 12 months) adverse effect on a person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities."

The conditions covered by this definition include everything from asthma to depression, Down's syndrome to hearing impairment, and multiple sclerosis to epilepsy. There is no need for you to have a medically diagnosed condition; what matters is the effect of the impairment not the cause. If you have a medical condition such as asthma you may not consider yourself to be disabled, but you may need support or special arrangements in your work place.

More information on the Act can be found at:

Reasonable adjustments

To enable people with disabilities to work, the Equality Act states that employers must make reasonable adjustments. These can take many different forms and may include:

  • providing equipment
  • allowing time off (for assessment or treatment)
  • making alterations to premises
  • modifying duties
  • adjustments to working environments, for example, controlling dust levels, no perfume policy.
  • changing practices, policies and procedure
  • a phased return to work after illness, perhaps working flexible hours or part-time
  • transferring to you to a more suitable role

What are my rights to time off work?

Everyone has the right to time off work for sickness and hospital appointments as per their employment policy. When you're ill, seek prompt medical attention and keep your employer informed about what is happening. You may need to provide evidence of appointments and show a sickness certificate.

The law automatically gives you the right to take time off work in certain circumstances; however, this may not always be paid time off. Check your contract to see what rights you have. If you're unable to work because of an illness or disability, you may be able to get Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). If you're still unable to work after 28 weeks, or you can't get SSP, you can apply for Employment and Support Allowance.

If you take time off, try to keep in touch with your employer during the time you are away from work.

This may include:

  • keeping in regular contact
  • asking to be kept up to date with what's happening at work
  • asking about your colleagues 
  • asking for reassurance that details about your illness or disability remain confidential, if that's what you want.

This should help you feel less isolated and lessen any worries you may have about taking time off and/or returning to work. Ask your employer to record disability-related sick leave separately from other sick absences. Your employer doesn't have to pay sick-pay beyond what they normally pay because the time off is disability related. But it may be a reasonable adjustment to allow more days off for disability-related reasons. Disability-related leave should not be taken into account when performance, promotion, attendance, selection for redundancy is being assessed. 

Your employer should help you plan your return to work after sickness, creating an agreed programme for your return. This should consist of a medical report to give advice on the likelihood of returning to work and measures to assist you in doing so. Returning on a part-time basis could be a reasonable adjustment, but only if your doctor recommends it.

What is Statutory Sick Pay?
Statutory Sick Pay is paid by your employer and can be paid for up to 28 weeks. To get SSP tell your employer you are sick; provide medical evidence in the form of a sick note for your employer.

What is Employment and Support Allowance?
Employment and Support Allowance offers you personalised support and financial help, so you can do appropriate work, if you're able to.

Employment and Support Allowance requires a medical assessment called the Work Capability Assessment. This assesses what you can do, rather than what you cannot, and identifies the health-related support you might need.

Can my employer dismiss me because of my asthma?

A termination of employment by an employer for whatever reason is, in law, a dismissal. Employers need to have considered what reasonable adjustments could be made to help your asthma and have taken steps to avoid needing to make a dismissal. If no further reasonable adjustments can be made which would allow you to perform well or to continue in your role, your employer has to consider moving you to a more suitable job as an alternative to dismissal. Some reasons for dismissal are admissible or potentially ' fair', for example where the employee's conduct justifies it. The issue is whether the dismissal was fair orunfair, as employees have a right in law not to be unfairly dismissed

What can I do if I think I have been discriminated against?

If you think you've been discriminated against at work, or that you might have been turned down for a job or dismissed because of your asthma, you will need to seek legal advice.

If you are in a union, you can obtain help from your union representative, or contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB).  

For more information and support on employment issues here are some useful contacts:

Citizens Advice Bureau
The CAB can offer advice and support on employment and benefits issues, including access to legal advice. Go to their website or your local phone book to find out where your local centre is.

This website has lots of information about disability rights and employment

The Equality and Human Rights Commission
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) promotes equality in England, Scotland and Wales, and operates a helpline advising people on the working of the Equality Act 2010. Tel: 0845 604 6610 (England); 0845 604 5510 (Scotland); 0845 604 8810 (Wales)

Equality Commission for Northern Ireland
The Equality Commission forNorthern Irelandpromotes equality and challenges discrimination inNorthern Ireland

Tel: 028 9050 0600

The Office of Disability Issues
The Office for Disability Issues leads the Government's vision of achieving equality for disabled people.

DisabilityAlliance UK
The Disability Alliance UK provides information and advice on disability issues.

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