About asthma


Asthma is a serious health problem. Thousands of people in Britain have to face the challenges of this disease every day.

Symptoms include severe shortness of breath that can stop you from doing the simplest tasks. Imagine not being able to carry your shopping or walk up the stairs or even play with your children. Some sufferers are unable to work again.

Other symptoms include:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness

The symptoms can develop right after exposure to a workplace substance. But sometimes symptoms appear several hours later, possibly at night. This can make any link with workplace activities unclear.

Other associated conditions are:

  • rhinitis (sneezing/runny nose)
  • conjunctivitis (itchy and inflamed red eyes).

See what happens to the lungs during an asthma attack!

Occupational asthma

Occupational asthma is an allergic reaction that can occur in some people when they are exposed to substances, for example flour or wood dust in the workplace.

These substances are called 'respiratory sensitisers' or asthmagens. They can cause a change in people's airways, known as the 'hypersensitive state'.

Not everyone who becomes sensitised goes on to get asthma. But once the lungs become hypersensitive, further exposure to the substance, even at quite low levels, may trigger an attack.

The main causes of occupational asthma are set out in Section C of HSE's Asthmagen Compendium.

This list of substances is a useful summary. Also look for the risk phrase R42 'May cause sensitisation by inhalation' on product labels or safety data sheets.

Work-related asthma

Work-related asthma or asthma made worse by work is broader and includes substances in the workplace that irritate the airways of individuals with pre-existing asthma. This includes people who have had asthma since childhood. Respiratory irritants may trigger attacks in those with occupational asthma or pre-existing asthma.

Examples include chlorine, general dust and even cold air.

Asthma statistics

Since 2000 statistics indicate that there has been a decrease in the number of reported cases of occupational asthma. The occupations with the highest incidence rates include bakers and vehicle paint sprayers.

The most commonly cited cause of occupational asthma was isocyanates followed by flour.

You can find more detailed information on the statistics website.

COSHH Regulations

These implement the EU Chemical Agents Directive. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations, require employers to prevent or control exposures to hazardous substances to protect employees' health.

There is also a specific Approved Code of Practice for The control of substances that cause occupational asthma. You can download the asthma appendix to the ACOP free.

COSHH Essentials

HSE continues to develop guidance on the main causes of occupational asthma by industry sector. You can download control guidance sheets from the COSHH Essentials tool

Alternatively, seek specialist help (eg from the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS)).

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