Tuesday 07 May is World Asthma Day. It is an opportunity for employers to re-evaluate how they are supporting and managing employee health and wellbeing, especially whether their working environment is putting employees at risk of both occupational asthma and occupational cancer.
Employee health and wellbeing – use World Asthma Day to revisit occupational asthma and occupational cancer risk
This month sees World Asthma Day take place on 07 May, the global awareness-raising initiative run by the Global Initiative for Asthma (GINA). It can be a handy calendar marker for employers to revisit how they’re doing in terms of employee health and wellbeing, especially when it comes to mitigating the risk of occupational asthma and occupational cancer.
World Asthma Day is a general health and wellbeing event, and GINA encourages individuals and organisations to run awareness-raising and fundraising activities and events on and around the day itself.
Nevertheless, it can be a good opportunity to revisit and kickstart conversations around asthma within the workplace, both the condition itself generally but also occupational asthma and occupational cancer more specifically.
On asthma generally, there is value in raising awareness around asthma as a health condition, the risks it can bring and effective management, both at an individual organisational level.
Earlier this year for example the charity Asthma UK warned that almost two-thirds of people who have had emergency treatment for an asthma attack were not given a follow-up appointment.
Air pollution risk
Last year, too, the Health Foundation found that a quarter of people in England live with two or more mental or physical health conditions, asthma among them.
Concerns are growing around the health consequences (including asthma) from air pollution, with London mayor Sadiq Khan recently introducing a new low emission zone across the capital.
To that end, although employees will normally be expected to manage their condition themselves on a day-to-day level, it is valuable for managers to be aware of the dangers associated with asthma.
This should include the risks of environmental triggers and what to do from a first aid perspective if someone at work experiences a potentially life threatening asthma attack.
More workplace-specific, however, are the health and wellbeing risks associated with occupational asthma and occupational cancer.
It has been estimated by the Health and Safety Executive that every year in the UK alone there are 200-300 new cases of occupational asthma seen by chest physicians, a figure that has remained largely unchanged for the past decade.
At-risk workplace environments
A prime cause of occupational asthma is dust, especially flour dust (if handled badly), with bakeries, flour mills and kitchens all at-risk environments. Indeed, flour dust is one of the most cited causes of occupational asthma by chest physicians, second only to isocyanates.
Construction workers are also at risk of developing dust-related diseases such as occupational lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma. More than 500 construction workers die from exposure to silica dust every year.
To this end, the HSE runs a regular “dustbuster” health and safety initiative focused on the construction sector, while the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health has an effective campaign around occupational cancer called “No Time to Lose”.
Other potentially at-risk environments for occupational allergens and irritants include hospitals and healthcare; pet shops, zoos and animal laboratories; farms and agriculture; car manufacture and repair workshops; woodwork and carpentry workshops; electronics and assembly industries; engineering and metalwork workplaces; hairdressing salons; and indoor swimming pools.
Proactive risk management
What, then, can employers do about all this? Lung function testing can be a useful risk management tool, especially if your organisation is operating in an at-risk environment. Regular health surveillance is also a good idea.
As Optima Health Chief Medical Officer Dr Lucy Wright highlights, simply being aware of the risk and the need to mitigate and risk manage it is important.
“It is self-evident that the most effective way to reduce the risk of occupational asthma and occupational cancer is to reduce the risk of exposure, whether we’re talking about dust, isocyanates, allergens, irritants or whatever. That means proactive, ongoing environmental management and monitoring if your organisation is operating in a potentially at-risk environment.
“On top of that, ongoing health surveillance and, if appropriate, regular lung function testing for your employees can be effective risk mitigation tools. But this cannot be done in isolation. It is important that effective follow-up is in place, normally led by your occupational health provider.
“Employers need to have the protocols and procedures in place to provide effective support for employees for both the physical and (it must not be forgotten) mental health consequences that may arise from a diagnosis of occupational cancer or occupational asthma,” she adds.