Every year many people in the UK develop asthma because they are exposed to dangerous substances at work. This is called occupational asthma.
What is occupational asthma?
Occupational asthma is caused directly by work and is usually the result of a reaction that can occur in some people when they are exposed to certain substances known as respiratory sensitisers. These are inhaled into the lungs over a period of time and cause asthma symptoms. Occupational asthma can be a serious condition leading to severe chronic asthma if exposure to respiratory sensitiser continues.
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 symptoms:
- 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 (eg when you are on holiday)
- you may have other associated nasal conditions such as rhinitis, (sneezing, itchy, runny nose) or conjunctivitis (itchy, red, and inflamed eyes).
Which substances cause occupational asthma?
"I worked in a factory that made children’s baby clothes. I didn’t realise it at the time, but tiny particles of material in the air were causing me to have really severe asthma symptoms. When I left the factory, my symptoms improved." - Michael Keenan
You can read about how Michael had pioneering ‘bronchial thermoplasty’ treatment for his severe asthma here.
Substances that can cause occupational 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 theUK. 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.
- Dust from flour and grain (pictured). This will affect people who work in bakeries, industrial baking, farm work and grain transport.
- Wood dust, particularly from hard wood dusts and western red cedar. This will affect people working in carpentry, joinery and sawmilling.
- Colophony - this is widely present in soldering fumes but also in glues and some floor cleaners, and may affect people in the electronics industry, welding industry.
- Dust from latex rubber. This will affect people working with latex gloves, such as nursing, dentistry or laboratory technicians.
- Dust from insects and animals, and from products containing them. This may impact people doing 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, which is updated regularly.
How can I prevent occupational asthma?
You can prevent occupational asthma by avoiding exposure to respiratory sensitisers. To achieve this you should follow these steps:
- If you're diagnosed with occupational asthma, you should avoid or reduce exposure to the substance as soon as possible.
- Try to get any respiratory sensitisers in your workplace removed or replaced with a safe alternative. If this is not possible, your employer can reduce the risk by installing extractor fans or isolating you from the process that produces the risk.
- If these steps aren't possible, use personal protective equipment such as breathing equipment, which will prevent you from inhaling the respiratory sensitiser.
What if I think I have occupational asthma?
See your doctor straight away. If they suspect that you do have occupational asthma, they should refer you to a Respiratory Specialist with a special interest in occupational asthma. 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 doesn't 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 may want to investigate if you are eligible to make a claim for compensation.
How is occupational asthma diagnosed?
Occupational asthma may be diagnosed in the following cases:
- 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.
Your doctor should take a full medical history and work history around your symptoms. They may ask you to record keep a peak flow diary at home and at work.
If occupational asthma is suspected, you should be referred to an occupational respiratory specialist for confirmation of diagnosis.
How soon should I start to avoid contact with the respiratory sensitiser?
It is important to avoid the respiratory sensitiser as soon as possible. Even inhaling tiny amounts may be enough to trigger your asthma. Once you avoid all contact with the respiratory sensitiser you're likely to feel much better than you have done for some time.
Will I need to stop working?
Although it is important that you avoid coming in contact with the respiratory sensitiser, it may be possible -with the right protection- to carry on working in your current job for the short term. In the longer term, you will need to talk to your employer (and if you have one, you occupational health doctor or nurse) to see if changes can be made to your current job to make it safer for you, or if you can be given another role. Most employers will try to help you in these ways.
If your employer can't find you safe work you may need to seek another job.
Having occupational asthma does not make you unfit to work-it just means you need to avoid jobs which involve exposure to the allergen that causes your asthma.
What can my employer do to help?
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 (COSHH). 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're working with respiratory sensitisers, it's 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 what needs to be put in place to help you. They may also consult with your Occupational Health nurse, doctor or your Respiratory Specialist about the need to control respiratory sensitisers in the work place, and they should inform you of the steps they plan to take to do this. The law requires employers to report all cases of occupational asthma to a central point. More information can be obtained from hse.gov.uk
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.
Your colleagues also have a legal duty not to do things that endanger your health (such as smoking near you). Be tactful and choose the right moment to raise the issue.
Can I get compensation if I develop occupational asthma?
If you develop asthma because of your work you should follow these steps.
- Tell your GP that you think the asthma was caused by your work.
- Tell your manager or safety officer if you have an asthma attack at work, and ask them 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.
You may be able to eligible to make a claim for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit which can be claimed from the Benefits Agency. The level of benefit may get depend on your individual circumstances including your age and the severity of your disability. This will be assessed by a doctor on a scale of one to 100 per cent.
It is important to claim your benefit as soon as possible. Payments will probably only start from the day you claim, not the day 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.
The Benefits Agency publishes brochures about occupational asthma and industrial diseases generally.
Contact the Benefits Agency enquiry line on 0800 882200
Will I always have occupational asthma?
The respiratory sensitiser that causes your occupational asthma will always be a trigger for you. However, most people who avoid contact with their trigger recover very well. Sometimes recovery happens as soon as contact with the trigger stops. Sometimes it can take longer- this is often the case if you had occupational asthma for a while and so have more serious symptoms. If your asthma symptoms are severe and you've had them for some time they may not go away completely.
Although your asthma has been caused by exposure to a respiratory sensitiser in your work place, your asthma symptoms should be treated and managed in the same way as anyone with asthma. For more information see our general information about asthma.
Where can I go for 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.