World Asthma Day falls on the 2nd of May this year, bringing an opportunity to improve our awareness of asthma and how it affects the people around us. Whether out in public or during our working day, we all have a responsibility to act when needed.

What causes occupational asthma?

Occupational asthma is caused as a direct result of workplace exposure. This can be in the form of one very high exposure, or sensitisation over a period of time to a substance – known as a respiratory sensitizer.

When we breathe them in, they can trigger an allergic reaction in the respiratory system. Substance labelling will contain the following if it poses any risk: “may cause sensitisation by inhalation (R42)”.

Examples of substance groups

  • Isocyanates
  • Flour/grain/hay
  • Electronic soldering flux
  • Latex rubber
  • Animals
  • Wood dusts
  • Glues
  • Resins
  • Glutaraldehyde
  • Hair dyes
  • Penicillins
  • Chromium compounds
  • Platinum salts
  • Cobalt
  • Nickel sulphate
  • Subtilisin/enzymes

Requirements for employers

If respiratory sensitizers are identified as being used in the workplace, the employer must develop and implement safety measures in their safety statement, which should be brought to the attention of employees.

In conjunction, a risk assessment should also be drawn up. This should identify:

  • The substance
  • Use of the substance
  • If it can become airborne
  • Who will be exposed
  • Concentrations
  • How long and how often the exposure

Preventing and control exposure

If a respiratory sensitizer is identified, a number of control measures should be considered. These can involve the complete removal of the substance, or replacement with an alternative. Is it possible to:

  • Totally or partially enclose the process?
  • Provide a source of local exhaust ventilation?
  • Provide suitable personal respiratory protection for workers?

If the risk of exposure is still present, you must provide health surveillance.

What should your employees know?

Your employees are entitled to information regarding hazards, as well as the protective and preventative measures in place.

If an employee is likely to be exposed to any respiratory sensitizer, you’ll need to provide suitable information, training and instruction to enable them to complete their work in a safe manner.

Do you need to complete health surveillance?

If an employee is going to work with respiratory sensitizers, a pre-employment medical examination (with lung function test) should be completed.

This, coupled with the risk assessment, will determine an employee’s suitability. If the risk assessment suggests the potential for asthma development, then health surveillance is required. It should be provided by a competent health professional at the initial 3 and 12-month marks, and annually thereafter.

If you have any questions regarding the issues in this article, please don’t hesitate to contact our 24 Hour Advice Service on 01 855 50 50.