No employee should have to work in an environment that makes them ill. It is the responsibility of the employer that they take all reasonable steps to mitigate the effect of respiratory sensitisers on the workforce. Respiratory sensitisers is a technical name for all the types of substances or compounds that are known to potentially bring about occupational asthma – see here for more details.
According to the British Thoracic Society it is believed that around one in six of all new adult asthma cases are a consequence of occupational factors.
Each year there are around 3,000 new cases of occupational asthma in the UK which have been caused by workers being exposed to hazardous substances in the workplace and of all the workers that have a pre-existing asthma condition, around half find that their condition is made worse.
Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH)
If you are employed in one of the at risk professions then your employer has a legal duty to abide by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH). This requires employers to control a workers’ exposure to known harmful substances so that an employees’ health is protected.
A requirement of COSHH is, wherever possible, the employer should replace harmful substances with safer substances when possible.
Furthermore, an assessment of employee exposure should be made in order to take into account the possibility of a worker inhaling or swallowing a harmful substance or coming into skin contact with a hazardous substance.
There are four important areas that an employer should take into account when considering COSHH –
- Preventative measures should be put in place in the work environment wherever possible. This includes the installation of local exhaust ventilation (LEV).
- A worker should wear protective equipment such as protective gloves and mask.
- The worker should follow operator instructions.
- There should be administrative overview (supervision) in place.
Regular health surveillance
Your employer should conduct a full risk assessment if there is the possibility of respiratory sensitisers present in your work environment, and you should be informed of the presence of any potentially harmful substances.
Additionally you should be informed about how to spot the early stages of occupational asthma if you are in a job that is deemed to be a risk.
By conducting regular health screening and surveillance it is the aim of the employer to mitigate the chances of a worker falling ill. Checks might take the form of regular questionnaires to be completed by staff or regular health checks from medical professionals.
Of course, if you believe that you are at risk of developing occupational asthma or you believe that you are in the early stages, it would be wise to consult with your doctor. Also, you may wish to consider speaking to your manager or union representative (if you are a member) to raise your concerns about the working environment with a view to the potential exposure to asthma inducing chemicals or materials in the workplace.