My first task in H&S Management was to formulate and implement a system to manage hazardous substances and to comply with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH), which were introduced in 1988 and came into effect the following year.
I worked for a large privately owned engineering company and had to compile an inventory of all hazardous substances that were used, stored and transported with the premises and those generated by process such welding fume, paint fume, metal spray fume, vapours and dust. What became apparent was the amount of personnel who was asthmatic, the majority of which was occupational asthma. That was over thirty years ago. Sadly, today employees across the country are still being exposed to substances that cause occupational asthma.
So, Occupational Asthma has been a significant concern in the United Kingdom, affecting the health and safety of workers in various industries for a number of years, therefore the HSE places a great emphasis on raising awareness and strong enforcement action. This article aims to shed some light on occupational asthma, its causes, symptoms, and the relevant UK Health and Safety Legislation that employers and employees need to be aware of to prevent and manage this condition.
What is Occupational Asthma?
Occupational asthma is a specific type of asthma that is triggered or worsened by workplace conditions. It occurs when a person's airways become inflamed and narrowed due to exposure to certain allergens or irritants in the workplace environment. Common triggers for occupational asthma include:
- Dust from wood, flour, or grain.
- Chemicals such as isocyanates, welding fumes, and solvents.
- Animal proteins (common among animal handlers and farmers).
- Latex (found in healthcare settings).
- Cleaning products and disinfectants.
- Fumes from soldering or soldering flux.
Can Occupational Asthma Effect Any of Your Employees?
In the UK we know, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 is the primary legislation that governs the health and safety of employees and employers have a general legal duty to protect their employees from harm, including occupational asthma and the COSHH regulations place specific general requirements on employers. The following points are some key aspects of the legal requirements related to occupational asthma:
- Risk Assessment: Employers must conduct thorough risk assessments to identify potential hazards that could cause or exacerbate occupational asthma. This includes assessing exposure to hazardous substances and implementing control measures.
- Control Measures: Employers are required to implement control measures to reduce exposure to asthma-inducing substances. This may include the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), proper ventilation systems, and substitution of harmful substances with safer alternatives when possible.
- Information and Training: Employers should provide employees with information and training regarding the risks associated with their work and how to protect themselves. This includes educating employees about the signs and symptoms of occupational asthma.
- Health Surveillance: Some industries may require regular health surveillance for employees who are at risk of developing occupational asthma. This ensures early detection and intervention.
How to Recognise the Symptoms of Occupational Asthma? Would your Employees Recognise the Symptoms?
It is important for both employers and employees to recognise the symptoms of occupational asthma. Common signs include:
- Wheezing and shortness of breath.
- Coughing, especially at night or early in the morning.
- A tight sensation in the chest.
- An increase in mucus production.
- Reduced lung function.
Occupational asthma is a preventable condition when proper measures are in place and followed. Employers must be proactive in identifying and mitigating workplace hazards, while employees should report any symptoms promptly. By fostering a culture of safety, the risk of occupational asthma can be significantly reduced, ensuring the well-being of workers across the country.