What is asthma?
Asthma is an inflammatory disorder of the airways, characterised by symptoms of coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest.
In some people with asthma, symptoms are so severe that they cannot work again. Occupational asthma is caused by workers breathing in a substance at work which results in them becoming sensitive to it. Any further exposure to this substance, even small amounts, can trigger an asthmatic attack. In some cases, symptoms occur immediately after exposure to the substance; in other cases, several hours later, often during the night.
Which substances cause occupational asthma?
Currently, more than 200 substances are known to cause occupational asthma. Examples include:
- Flour dust
- Some soft- and hard-wood dusts
- Solder fumes
- Reactive dyes
Other substances known to cause occupational cancer are listed on the HSE website http://www.hse.gov.uk/asthma/substances.htm
Prescribed industrial disease
Asthma is one of the diseases on the Industrial Disablement Benefit (IDB) list.
This means that, if your asthma can be proved to be caused by work, and from working with one of the specific substances listed under the scheme e.g. resin from soldering fumes, you may be eligible for a regular benefit from the state. Unusually for the IDB list of causes, there is also a category of "any other sensitising agent", which would have to be proved.
Preventing occupational asthma
In addition to Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) requirements to prevent and control exposure to harmful substances, there is an Approved Code of Practice specifically for substances which cause occupational asthma.
Extrinsic Allergic Alveolitis (EAA) has been known as an industrial disease in various industries for many years, with names like "farmer's lung" or "animal handler's lung". It is inflammation of the small air sacs in the lungs (the alveoli) from repeated exposure to a substance e.g. grain, that produces antibodies which try to fight what it sees as alien intruders to the body, but which result over time in allergic reactions, such as breathlessness.
However, an outbreak in Powertrain in MG Rover, Longbridge in Birmingham was diagnosed shortly before the factory closed. It was recognised for the first time as being caused by bacteria in metal-working fluids, resulting in compensation for sufferers, and issuing of preventive guidance for those working with metal-working fluids, a process still happening a lot in the West Midlands.
Besides the kind of common law compensation given to the people like the Powertrain workers, made possible through their union membership and via solicitors, EAA from metal-working fluids was added to the Prescribed Industrial Disease list as a result of the findings at Powertrain. This provides a kind of occupational pension payment through the Industrial Disablement Scheme. The DWP website contains information about the benefit , and the Prescribed Industrial Disease list is in Appendix 1.
Other Respiratory Diseases
There are many other work-related respiratory diseases. See for example our news item on Construction Dust Risks.
Resources and links
- The British Occupational Research Foundation, TUC & HSE leaflet on Asthma
- The TUC has an online page and chapter on Asthma in Hazards book
- HSE publication: Isocyanate paint spraying. http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/priced/hsg276.pdf