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A worker’s guide to occupational asthma

Occupational asthma can be an alarming and disabling condition therefore it is important to be aware of how to prevent it and what to do if you think you may have symptoms of asthma. The good news is that it is preventable and early diagnosis and intervention can improve symptoms and offer a good chance of recovery.

How is occupational asthma prevented?

Occupational asthma is prevented by employers and workers being aware of the causes; by employers taking effective steps to control exposure in the workplace; and by workers complying with all health and safety precautions such as following job safe practices; wearing, removing and maintaining respiratory and other personal protective equipment properly and cleaning of spills with the right equipment. You should also inform your manager and health and safety representative of any problems in the workplace and if you develop symptoms.

Should I have regular health checks?

If your employer’s risk assessment shows that you could be at risk of exposure to something at work which is known to cause occupational asthma your employer should arrange for you to have regular ‘health surveillance’. The purpose of this is to identify if you are developing early signs and symptoms.  If the risk assessment shows that the risk is low, then the health surveillance might just involve filling in a questionnaire to answer questions about your breathing and whether you have a runny nose or itchy eyes.  Where there is higher risk, you should be seen by a specialist occupational health nurse or technician who will ask you to blow into a spirometer, a machine that measures your lung volume.  For more information about the value of occupational health services see: Occupational health: A guide for workers and their representatives.

When should I see a doctor?

There are some situations when you should see a doctor.

  • If health surveillance detects signs any abnormalities you should be assessed by an occupational physician who is trained in work-related diseases.
  • If you develop problems with your breathing you should seek medical advice.
    • If you have an occupational health service at work and you think the problems are work-related you should contact them and arrange a health assessment.
    • If you don’t have access to an occupational health service, and/or if you need treatment you should make an appointment to see your GP.
  • If you are suspected to have occupational asthma you may be referred to a see a chest specialist who has expertise in occupational asthma.

What are the main treatments?

The medical treatment of occupational asthma is the same as any other type of adult asthma. What is especially important in work-related asthma is the occupational management.

  • If you have long-standing asthma which has become worse – but work is not causing or aggravating it then all you are likely to need is adjustment of your medication. 
  • If your work is aggravating asthma then you should avoid the triggers that make your asthma worse at work.
  • If your work has caused occupational asthma you should avoid further exposure to the cause completely and early in the course of the disease. This is best managed by being relocated to another area of the workplace and/or to another job, ideally within a year of first noticing symptoms. 

What is the outlook?

If you can manage to avoid any further exposure to the causative agent within a year of symptoms starting, there is a reasonable chance that occupational asthma may go away or improve significantly.  However, if you continue to be exposed to the cause of your asthma at work, the likelihood is that your asthma will deteriorate and become irreversible.

Can I get compensation for occupational asthma?

Occupational asthma is a prescribed disease and you may be entitled to Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit. For more information visit the Government website. If work caused your asthma and you have suffered injury or loss you may claim compensation from your employer through the courts.  More information is available on the Citizens Advice Bureau website.

Key messages

  • Always follow job safe practices at work to protect your health.
  • Always attend any health surveillance appointments at work.
  • If you develop symptoms, see a doctor as soon as possible. 
  • If you are confirmed to have occupational asthma avoid any further exposure to its cause. 
  • Once you develop the condition the best chances of the symptoms improving are if it is diagnosed early and you avoid further exposure to the cause.

Compiled by Dr Paul J Nicholson OBE, a former GP and specialist in occupational medicine.

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