Occupational asthma is caused by workers breathing in substances that produce a hypersensitive state in the airways - the small tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs - and trigger a subsequent response in them.
Not everyone who becomes sensitised goes on to develop the clinical disease but once the lungs become hypersensitive, further exposure to the substance – even at quite low levels – may provoke an asthmatic attack.
The occupations with the highest incidence rates include bakers and vehicle paint sprayers. The most commonly cited causes of occupational asthma are isocyanates, followed by flour. Other causes include paints, wood dusts and solder. Asthma can ruin lives. Some sufferers become so disabled they cannot work again.
Almost all cases of occupational asthma can be prevented by the use of adequate controls. The CIEH recommends the following measures:
- Employers should prevent exposure, or where this is not possible keep exposure as low as is reasonably practicable, particularly where work involves high short-term exposures
- Health surveillance is important. Early removal from exposure can lead to a complete recovery, so employers should have systems in place to detect symptoms at an early stage
- Employers should immediately review procedures if a case of occupational asthma is confirmed
- Employees should discuss their symptoms with their site medical service or GP
- Employees should follow instructions and wear any approved protective equipment.
For more information on occupational asthma, please visit the HSE website.