Asthma in the Workplace

Asthma is a serious health problem. Thousands of people in Britain have to face the challenges of this disease every day. This article reviews employers’ duties for asthma in the workplace.


Symptoms include severe shortness of breath that can stop you from doing the simplest tasks. Imagine not being able to carry your shopping or walk up the stairs or even play with your children. Some sufferers are unable to work again.

Other symptoms include:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness

The symptoms can develop right after exposure to a workplace substance. But sometimes symptoms appear several hours later, possibly at night. This can make any link with workplace activities unclear.

Other associated conditions are:

  • rhinitis (sneezing/runny nose)
  • conjunctivitis (itchy and inflamed red eyes).

Occupational asthma

Occupational asthma is an allergic reaction that can occur in some people when they are exposed to substances, for example flour or wood dust in the workplace.

These substances are called ‘respiratory sensitisers’ or asthmagens. They can cause a change in people’s airways, known as the ‘hypersensitive state’.

Not everyone who becomes sensitised goes on to get asthma. But once the lungs become hypersensitive, further exposure to the substance, even at quite low levels, may trigger an attack.

Work-related asthma

Work-related asthma or asthma made worse by work is broader and includes substances in the workplace that irritate the airways of individuals with pre-existing asthma. This includes people who have had asthma since childhood. Respiratory irritants may trigger attacks in those with occupational asthma or pre-existing asthma. Examples include chlorine, general dust and even cold air.

What companies should do

  • Companies should identify the potential substances that could cause or exacerbate Asthma and see if less harmful substances could be used.
  • Once all triggers have been identified robust COSHH assessments should be created and communicated to the employees who they may affect.
  • Mechanical means such as extraction be used to lower/remove the exposure to the substance.
  • Suitable Health surveillance should be introduced so that the individual’s health can be monitored.
  • Suitable PPE introduced and individuals trained on the use of the PPE
  • Face mask to be face fitted to ensure a good seal.
  • Train individuals on the hazards within the business and the potential health risks that individuals may suffer.

Companies with a positive Health and Safety culture will identify all hazards that may affect their employees and then implement suitable controls to reduce the risk as far as reasonably practicable. The key is engaging with employees so suitable rules, procedures and monitoring can be implemented.

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