As part of our workplace exposure testing and assessment service, an area we often come across is the misunderstanding of occupational asthma and what causes it in the workplace. The following information will give you an insight into what is occupational asthma, how to comply with the HSE regulations and protect your staff from this debilitating workplace disease.
Substances that can cause occupational asthma (also known as asthmagens and respiratory sensitisers) can induce a state of specific airway hyper- responsiveness via an immunological, irritant or other mechanism. Once the airways have become hyper-responsive, further exposure to the substance, sometimes even to tiny quantities, may cause respiratory symptoms. These symptoms can range in severity from a runny nose to asthma. Not all workers who are exposed to a sensitiser will become hyper-responsive and it is impossible to identify in advance those who are likely to become hyper-responsive. Some of the more common workplace sensitisers are as follows:
Soft and hard woods
Flour dust (bakeries and food production)
Azodicarbonamide (blowing agent, used heavily in plastics industry)
Platinum compounds (used in catalytic convertors and chemical industry)
Isocyanates (associated with paint spraying activities)
Grain dust (fungal spores)
Metal working fluids
Stainless steel welding fumes
Organisations are responsible for making an assessment of the likely exposure levels of these types of substances (COSHH reg 6) with an aim to prevent or reduce exposure to levels as low as reasonably practicable (COSHH reg 7). Activities giving rise to short-term peak concentrations should receive particular attention when risk management is being considered. Health surveillance is appropriate for all employees exposed or liable to be exposed to a substance which may cause occupational asthma. All employees of this type are required by health and safety law to undergo a health surveillance regime which involves an initial baseline, 6 weeks, 12 weeks and then annual surveillance plan.