UK Sets Target to Reduce Occupational Asthma

Occupational safety agencies in the UK are cracking down on occupational asthma by instituting programs and enforcement efforts they hope will lower the number of occupational asthma cases as much as 30 percent annually.


Workers in the UK can breathe a little easier. The Health and Safety Commission (HSC) wants to reduce occupational asthma cases by 30 percent and has adopted an Approved Code of Practice (ACoP) to reach that goal.

Occupational asthma is caused by workers breathing in substances at work 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. The symptoms include attacks of wheezing, coughing or shortness of breath. Once asthma has been induced, further exposure to the substance, even relatively low levels, may provoke an attack. These symptoms can develop immediately or several hours after exposure.

Following much discussion, the HSC has agreed to support a comprehensive package of measures, including:

  • Setting a target to reduce cases of asthma caused by substances at work by 30 percent over the next nine years.
  • Publishing an ACoP on the control of occupational asthma as an annex to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002. The HSC hopes this will bring home to employers that the law requires them to ensure substances that cause occupational asthma are properly controlled.
  • Creating a Project Board to develop, publish and help implement an action plan. Membership will be drawn from industry, unions, charities involved with asthma and health professionals.
  • Directing the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to distribute a new, easy-to-use guidance for employers on the steps they need to take to control the main causes of occupational asthma. This will be backed up by enforcement activity.

"This comprehensive package is an excellent example of ''Securing Health Together'' in action. No single action taken alone can bring about the improvements we are looking for, but by working in partnership we can make a real difference," said HSC Chair Bill Callaghan. "By working with a range of stakeholders to provide training and improve awareness; providing employers with tools telling them what they need to do; introducing an ACoP and backing this with increased enforcement activity we can reduce the current unacceptable levels of this disease and help those who currently have asthma."

"Securing Health Together" is the UK''s comprehensive multi-year plan to reduce workplace injuries and illnesses.

Callaghan noted that the HSC is committed to tackling occupational asthma, which is the most frequently diagnosed respiratory disease in Great Britain, adding, "I shall be taking a personal interest to ensure that good progress is made."

HSE estimates that each year anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 people in Great Britain develop occupational asthma. Some sufferers become so disabled that they cannot work again. Many have to change jobs to avoid exposure to the substance that caused their asthma and may no longer be able to use specialist skills, or face a restricted lifestyle, reports the HSE.

"With proper control measures, this occupational disease is entirely preventable," said Sandra Caldwell, head of HSE''s Health Directorate, who will chair the Project Board. "I look forward to chairing the Project Board, which will develop and help implement an action plan. The plan will include actions on the five key programs in ''Securing Health Together'' for improving occupational health."

The five key programs in "Securing Health Together" include improving compliance with the law; striving for excellence through continuous improvement; obtaining essential knowledge about the disease; ensuring interested parties have the necessary skills; and ensuring appropriate mechanisms are in place to deliver information, advice and other support. The plan to combat asthma will include proposals in the consultation document and many of the new ideas arising from consultation.

She said that she hopes that new ideas brainstormed during the consultation phase will spawn pilot programs in specific areas that will be rolled out to other areas where they work well.

The action plan should be published in spring 2002. As part of securing compliance, HSC will publish the agreed ACoP - which explains how employers can comply with the law and has legal status - as an annex to COSHH in summer or autumn 2002. This will coincide with the start of an operational program to improve compliance through greater enforcement, inspection and increased emphasis on health surveillance.

The total benefit of preventing all new cases of occupational asthma over the next 10 years is estimated at between 579 million and 1,159 million British pounds. Against this, the additional costs of implementing the proposed ACoP are estimated at 89 million British pounds. Increased awareness of the problem may result in increased reporting of cases at first.

The HSE lists the top eight causes of occupational asthma and main occupations exposed as:

  • Isocyanates - spray painters, other metal or electrical processors, makers or repairers (mainly vehicle manufacture and mechanics), plastics workers;
  • Flour/grain - bakers, other food processors, farmers or farm workers;
  • Wood dust - wood workers;
  • Glutaraldehyde - nurses, other non-metal or electrical processors (mainly darkroom technicians), other professional clerical and service occupations (mainly radiographers;
  • Solder/colophony - welders, solderers or electronic assemblers, other metal or electrical processors, makers or repairers;
  • Laboratory animals - Laboratory technicians, scientists and assistants, other professional clerical and service occupations (mainly medical/pharmacological research);
  • Resins and glues - metal and electrical processors, makers and repairers, construction and mining, other non-metal or electrical processors, makers or repairers, chemical processors; and
  • Latex - nurses and auxiliaries, laboratory technicians.

All eight substances will be targeted specifically in the action plan.

by Sandy Smith

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