With World Asthma Day happening in May, we decided to take a look at this most well-known of lung diseases – including how is asthma caused in the workplace and what businesses can do about protecting their staff from suffering.

But first, we have to establish…

What is asthma?

Asthma is a lung condition that affects almost 5.5 million people in the UK, where a person’s airways are primed to react to triggers that irritates them. When that happens, the airway swells, the muscles there tighten, and phlegm and mucus can build up, making it difficult for the sufferer to breathe. This is called an asthma attack.

Asthma triggers can be different for everyone – what sets off asthma for one person may not set it off for another. For some, experiencing difficult emotions or overdoing strenuous exercise can lead to an asthma attack. However, there are also a number of environmental factors that commonly contribute – including pet hair, mould and damp, and breathing in poor quality air that’s filled with dust, pollen or carcinogens.

Because asthma is reactive rather than persistent, asthma symptoms come and go – unlike the many lung conditions that make up COPD. That’s not to say that asthma is a less serious condition, however. Dealing with asthma can severely impact a person’s quality of life, and on average three people in the UK sadly die each day from an asthma attack.

What causes asthma?

There are a number of reasons people develop asthma – some genetic and others environmental.

man on oxygen at hospital due to asthma

Asthma runs in families

Many people develop asthma and other allergies (including eczema and hay fever) as a child but grow out of it. Those who don’t find it to be a lifetime condition for which there is no cure – though there are treatments to manage symptoms.

Smoking can lead to asthma

If parents smoke during pregnancy or a child’s formative years, there is a higher probability of the child developing asthma. Smoking during pregnancy can also increase the chances of a child being prone to a viral condition called bronchiolitis that causes children to wheeze and cough. Adults who smoke also have an increased risk of developing asthma. Basically, at all stages of life, the chances of developing asthma go up dramatically if smoking is involved.

Workplace-caused asthma

If you’ve never had lung problems before and you don’t smoke, but find yourself showing the signs of asthma, there’s a good chance it was caused by an allergen or irritant you were exposed to in the workplace over a sustained period of time.

Occupational asthma signs include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, itchy red eyes (conjunctivitis) or an inflammation of the inside of the nose (rhinitis). The more you are exposed to these irritants, the worse these symptoms will become.

Asthma irritants can include:

  • Flour dust
  • Latex
  • Grain and poultry dust
  • Vapours and particles
  • Chemicals
  • Wood dust
  • Fumes and mists

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website has a comprehensive list of substances than can cause occupational asthma here.

Preventing workplace asthma

man spraying car paint wearing protective gear

Some types of job present an obviously higher risk of people being exposed to these irritants than others. Those roles include:

HSE makes it clear that everyone has a part in avoiding workplace-caused asthma. That includes employers, employees, government, industry and unions.

However, as a first line of prevention, certain universal measures can and should be taken by employers in high-risk industries:

  • Provide employees adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for your industry
  • Where possible, replace substances commonly known to cause or trigger asthma with safer alternatives
  • Fully train employees in workplace safety procedures and explain the risks involved in any chemicals being used
  • Offer health checks when employees start a high-risk role and at least once a year throughout their employment
  • Install comprehensive ventilation and suitable at-source fume and dust extraction systems that capture potentially harmful particles before they enter employees’ breathing zones.

Helping your workplace stay asthma-free

At VODEX, we offer at-source extraction solutions for a wide range of industries – including those in the highest risk categories for occupational asthma.

Our systems will help your business comply with the Health and Safety Act, and more specifically, will make sure your workspace measures up to the rigorous standards of COSHH – Control of Substances Hazardous to Health.

From farming and agriculture to woodworking, electronics and lab work, we can help you choose the equipment that will help keep your people’s respiratory health intact.

Not sure which solution you need? Get in touch to talk through your options.

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