What is occupational asthma?

Occupational asthma is the name given to the condition of asthma when it is caused or worsened by a person’s work environment. Asthma develops from a person inhaling substances called asthmagens, which are airborne. Exposure to asthmagens is quite common in a range of industries, such as hairdressing, cleaning, and baking. Sometimes inhaling asthmagens in these sorts of environments can cause asthma to slowly develop, and sometimes it can be very sudden – it really depends on how frequently a person works around the substance/s and for what duration.

Many people see breathing difficulties and conditions like asthma as a part of their job, so take it on the chin and do nothing about it. Often, this is because they don’t realise that anything can be done about it. However, it’s important to know that if your workplace has caused you to develop any of the symptoms listed below because of lack of protection, you could be compensated for the way occupational asthma has affected your life.

Common symptoms of asthma

There are a range of symptoms of occupational asthma that you should be on the lookout for, especially if you frequently work in an industry where asthmagens are known to be used. These symptoms include:

  • Being short of breath
  • Wheezing and coughing
  • Restricted chest movements
  • Difficulty breathing
  • ‘Shallow’ feeling breathing
  • Asthma attacks

These symptoms might not always be present and will more than likely worsen when you are around the substances that are known to trigger asthma. If you have these symptoms frequently, it’s a good idea to pay your doctor a visit. They will hopefully be able to suggest whether your job is likely to be the reason for your symptoms and will likely be able to provide you with some sort of relief aid such as an inhaler to use when you experience difficulty breathing.

Jobs at risk of developing asthma

Asthmagens are present as part of a range of substances that are used across a lot of industries. If you work in or with any of the below, you are at risk of inhaling asthmagens and developing or worsening asthma symptoms:

  • Rubber and plastics manufacturing industries
  • Baking, or any food production which involves using flour
  • Industries which involve contact with paint, varnish, textiles, dyes and cosmetics – this includes a range of job roles ranging from beauticians and hairdressers to vehicle paint sprayers
  • Cleaning/industries where disinfectants are used often
  • Metal welding, with metals such as stainless steels and chromiums
  • Hard metal manufacturing
  • Healthcare industries, specifically for those with the responsibility to clean surgical instruments
  • Jobs where contact with latex – specifically latex gloves – is frequent

This list is non-exhaustive, and there are many, many more industries where it is possible to come into contact with asthma-triggering substances. You might not be able to identify the exact substance which is causing your asthma, so your best bet is to record your symptoms and when they seem to flare up.

Do employers have a responsibility to protect staff from occupational asthma?

In short, yes. In the UK all employers are responsible for providing their members of staff with a safe working environment. If an employer neglects to do so and their staff begin to develop symptoms of occupational asthma, they could be held accountable in an occupational asthma compensation claim.

The following factors could put employees at risk of developing asthma when they work around asthmagens:

  • Employer’s failure to limit asthmagen exposure
  • Poorly ventilated work space
  • Lack of adequate training
  • Absence of breathing tests or any monitoring of breathing capacity
  • Inadequate or broken protective equipment such as masks

It’s pretty simple for employers to take the steps necessary to prevent their employees from developing occupational asthma, however it doesn’t always happen. You should always make your employer aware if you are suffering from asthma symptoms, but if they don’t do anything and your symptoms worsen, you might want to consider making a claim against them.

This can not only help you be able to take time off work without having to worry about running into financial issues, but also will highlight a health and safety issue in your workplace which will need to be fixed, so your colleagues and future employees won’t have to suffer in the way you have had to.

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