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Employers are failing to control the causes of work-related asthma

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An article in the latest edition of Hazards magazine, reports that employers are failing to control the causes of work-related asthma. As a result, 20 people a day needlessly develop this debilitating and potentially life-threatening condition.

The TUC is calling for a legally binding Approved Code of Practice (ACoP) to set out in detail what employers must do to prevent asthma.

TUC Senior Policy Officer Owen Tudor said: ‘No one needs to develop asthma at work, so anyone who does has cause to be very bitter indeed. People only get one set of lungs, and employers have shown that guidance and general rules aren’t enough. We need a specific legal code on asthma to breathe some life back into workers’ lung safety.’

The survey of nearly a thousand union safety reps in workplaces, where asthma-causing substances are used regularly, showed that few employers were carrying out all of their general legal obligations. This shows that employers need specific instructions about how to deal with asthma. Measures which some employers are taking include:

  • risk assessments – 41%
  • health surveillance (monitoring workers’ health) – 28%
  • providing breathing equipment – 26%
  • training for workers – 23%
  • ventilation – 22%
  • substitution of the dangerous substance with one less dangerous – 8%
  • enclosing the process which exposes workers to the asthma-causing substance – 6%

Existing legislation requires employers to make substitution the first step employers take, with breathing equipment the last.

According to the TUC survey, the main asthma-causing substances being used were:

  • glues and resins (26% of workplaces surveyed)
  • wood dust (20%)
  • latex (17% – the TUC issued a report on latex allergies last week, see:Erasing the rubber health risk)
  • isocyanates (11%)
  • solder/colophony (10%)
  • flour and grain (9%)

Workers likely to be exposed, range from those in manufacturing, carpenters and painters to bakers and nurses. The TUC estimates that about 7,000 people a year develop asthma as a result of their work.

Asthma is an allergic condition of the lungs and respiratory system, which can cause breathlessness, wheezing and in some cases can be so severe it is fatal. Generally, people who develop asthma at work have to leave their job and take a significant reduction in wages (although asthma and its causes can be controlled if properly managed).

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