This is asthma caused by dusts or chemicals breathed in from the workplace air. It is a form of allergic reaction. The affected individual’s immune system becomes sensitised over time to these substances. Further exposure triggers a response within the immune system, which results in the condition we describe as asthma. The net effect of the immune response is that the bronchi, or breathing tubes become narrowed. Narrowing of the bronchi produces the common symptoms of breathlessness and wheezing. The symptoms are often worse at night, and may improve at weekends and on holidays.
The following objects and substances have been identified as causes of occupational asthma:
- Isocyanates, found in many industrial processes such as vehicle spray painting and MDF production
- Flour/grain/hay from working with grains at dock, milling, malting and baking.
- Electronic soldering flux, from working in electronic assembly.
- Latex rubber from working in health care and laboratories.
- Laboratory animals.
- Wood dust, from saw milling and woodworking.
- Hair dyes from working in hairdressers.
Symptoms do not happen the first time that you are exposed to the substance. It takes time for the immune system to be sensitised. The process may even take up to two years to develop. Symptoms may include irritation of the eyes and nose, breathlessness, wheezing, tightness of chest and coughing.
These attacks can continue long after exposure to the triggering substances has stopped. Even if you change jobs the problem of asthma may persist. There is the added difficulty of developing sensitivity to substances other than the initial trigger.
- To ensure a safe working environment.
- Include respiratory risks found in the workplace in a Safety Statement.
- Employer must also tell employees about the risks of the substances and the necessary safeguards.
- Provide adequate control systems to reduce the risk of exposure to unacceptable levels.
- Ensure adequate supervision within the workplace.
- Provide ongoing medical monitoring of exposed employees.
A worker in a local fibreboard factory had to work with fibres that contained formaldehyde, a known irritant and cause of occupational asthma. Certain protections were provided in specific areas of the factory but not in all areas. This worker was often asked to clean up spillages of fibres containing the chemical. Over time he began to have difficulties breathing, he developed a very bad cough and had a feeling of tightness in his chest.
His doctors made a diagnosis of occupational asthma. It turned out that his sensitivity was not just to formaldehyde – which had triggered his asthma. His condition was present constantly but made much worse by dust or fumes. He had to give up his work in the factory and take extra precautions to avoid irritants.
He brought High Court proceedings which were fully contested.
Ultimately, with the assistance of expert medical opinion and occupational health opinion, we were able to prove that the employer was responsible and substantial damages were paid.
A case in Clonmel Circuit Court saw a young female tell how she was instructed to use neat Domestos to clean the skirting boards in a fast food restaurant in Cashel. Medical evidence stated that the bleach fumes in their concentrated form had irritated her lungs and she had developed a sensitivity which led to asthma.
The employer denied that the employee had been told to use neat Domestos and argued that due to the cost of Domestos, it should always be diluted. There was no evidence of a risk assessment and no breathing protection was provided.
Judge Olive Buttimer awarded the plaintiff €30,000 and her costs.