Preventing Occupational Asthma

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) is a code of practice in the UK that is aimed towards making the workplace safer for employees that might be at risk of developing industrial diseases such as occupational asthma.

It is a code of practice that should be in place at all high risk workplaces. Check to see if your workplace is listed as a high risk. If so, you should have been made aware of the contents of COSHH as it has been designed to attempt to protect your health.

Common occupational asthma triggers

There are a small number of common triggers that are known to cause occupational asthma in workers. By being aware of the top triggers, you are helping to recognise when your health could be in danger at work – this is particularly the case if you already have an asthma condition because the items on the list have been known to exacerbate existing conditions –

  • Fumes
  • Chemicals
  • Dust
  • Perfumes or air conditioners
  • Stress
  • Isocyanates
  • Grain and/or flour

There is a much more detailed list of potentially high risk substances which can be found here.

Assessment of risk

The COSHH guidelines stipulate that the employer should conduct a risk assessment in the workplace that should cover the following aspects.

  • Identify any hazardous substances that might be used as part of a persons’ job.
  • Determine which employees are most at risk from exposure to dangerous substances.
  • Check the current risks of exposure and precautions in place to mitigate the risk of exposure.
  • Make a record of any significant findings with regards to substances, hazards, risk, etc.
  • Review and revise the assessment if necessary.

Four steps to avoid occupational asthma

The aim is to mitigate the chances of occupational asthma developing if you are working in an environment that is subject to respiratory sensitisers such as those noted on our list. Any recovery is dependent on the level or duration of exposure to a respiratory sensitiser so it is important that there are procedures in place to prevent occupational asthma cases and deal with new cases as an early stage.

Step 1

If it is acknowledged that there are respiratory sensitisers in your work environment then it would be advantageous to have these removed and replaced with substances that are potentially less hazardous to health. This is a central tenet to COSHH so it is something that the employer should be continually working towards doing.

Step 2

When working with potentially hazardous materials make sure that you are wearing protective equipment such as protective gloves, breathing mask or breathing equipment and protective clothing to prevent skin contact. If it is necessary to have to work with respiratory sensitisers then make sure that you wear as much protective equipment as possible and that it is worn in the correct manner. If you believe that you do not have enough protective equipment or it is the wrong type, you should speak to your manager to arrange for the provision of safe equipment to use.

Step 3

All workplaces that are subject to the COSHH guidelines should have a program of health surveillance for at risk staff. This can include the use of regular health questionnaires and lung function testing. This can be an important factor in helping to prevent or catch any potential cases of occupational asthma at an early stage. If a case of occupational asthma has been diagnosed among a member of staff, the employer is legally required to report the case to a central point as per the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR).

Step 4

Learn the early stages of occupational asthma – see our symptoms page so that if you believe that you may be in the early stages of the disease you can take appropriate steps to remove yourself from the potential cause of the asthma and seek appropriate treatment as soon as possible.