Health and Safety News

Occupational health and safety news and guidance

On the lookout for occupational asthma

Photo shows an inhaler

People who develop asthma because of the type of work they do have what's known as occupational asthma. It's actually referred to as adult-onset asthma and accounts for up to 15% of asthma cases in adults. What's more, it's believed that in certain industries, as many as 10% of workers develop occupational asthma.

That's a lot of people being struck down by a condition that can be distressing and debilitating for them, and costly for their employers. Already, the UK has one of the worst instances of worker absence in the world due to illness. A study by accountancy firm PwC found that employees in the UK take as much as four times more absence annually because of sickness, compared to other countries. That’s an average absence of 9.1 days and it costs companies £29 billion a year.

Clearly, employers are not only legally and duty bound to provide a safe working environment for their personnel, but they also want to reduce the possibility of any kind of illness that may lead to days off and loss of productivity. With occupational asthma, some sectors are inherently more hazardous than others, such as the chemical and paint industries, where workers are exposed to dangerous substances.

However, the risk is present in just about every work situation, including the office. It may surprise you what seemingly innocuous items can trigger the development of asthma and subsequent attacks. Taking simple actions and precautionary measures can go a long way towards protecting personnel.

Employers may not be aware of it, but at the most basic level, if a work environment — be it a warehouse or an office, or anything in between — is not properly heated or cooled, asthma may develop in employees. Similarly, not providing proper ventilation and allowing strong odours (such as pollution from road traffic or tobacco smoke) into the work setting may also cause asthma.

Other known triggers include the various types of air fresheners common in many workplaces, as well as something that's found in many a work setting: stress. Overloading employees with work and other burdens and not providing adequate stress-relief mechanisms may not only lead to feelings of resentment but might also cause occupational asthma. They might even go on to make an asthma compensation claim.

Warning signs to look out for with occupational asthma include sudden shortness of breath and coughing fits, which may be more pronounced at night or when exercising. People developing the condition may also have a feeling of tightness in the chest and wheezing, as well as a general difficulty with breathing. Depending on the severity of individual asthma cases, doctors may prescribe long-term or short-term medications to try and ease the symptoms, as well as to stop attacks when they occur.

Patients will be advised to look out for triggers that may inflame their asthma or cause an attack. If it’s a case of occupational asthma, employers will need to identify what material or substance is the culprit and ensure the affected worker does not come into contact with it again. Additionally, when there are staff in the workplace with occupational asthma, all employees should be fully aware of what to do when an attack happens, trained in what action to take. If it happens and they don’t know what to do or have tried to help the person but they’re not improving, they should simply call an ambulance.

The workplace can often be dangerous, sometimes even deadly. Working to make it a safer place for all employees will lead to a healthier, happier and altogether more profitable enterprise.

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