Asthma in the Workplace

06/09/2021

By Tess Dickie, Principal Lawyer, Gordon Legal

1-7 September 2021 is Asthma Week and the theme for this year is “Air Nutrition”, a term coined to raise awareness about the air we breathe and its impact on our health. In this article, we take a closer look at an often overlooked and under-diagnosed type of asthma called “occupational asthma” - one of the most common occupational lung conditions.

What is occupational asthma?

Occupational asthma, also called work-related asthma, occurs where breathing in fumes, dust, or gasses at work causes or worsens asthma symptoms such as coughingwheezingshortness of breath and chest tightness.

Occupational asthma is most commonly “sensitiser-induced”, where long term exposure to a substance triggers symptoms or less often, it may be “irritant-induced” where a workplace incident or event involving a leak or spill of a particular substance triggers symptoms shortly after the exposure.

How common is occupational asthma?

It is estimated that 2.7 million Australians suffer from asthma – that’s 1 in 9 people. According to Asthma Australia, occupational asthma accounts for at least 200 workers’ compensation claims per year in Australia, although many cases of occupational asthma go undiagnosed and the real number may be in the thousands. The Lung Foundation suggests that one quarter of working people with asthma have asthma that is caused or made worse by their work.

What are the triggers?

Occupational asthma triggers in the workplace are varied and often overlooked. There is a list of over 400 different chemicals known to cause or exacerbate asthma and these include:

  • flour and grain dust
  • wood dust
  • latex
  • acrylic paints
  • formaldehyde and other chemicals
  • strong cleaning products
  • animal allergens

Some occupations are more likely to increase the risk of a person developing asthma or making an asthma sufferer’s symptoms worse. For example, “Baker's asthma” is one of the most common types of occupational asthma and is usually associated with the inhalation of flour. People working with isocyanates, a type of chemical found in paints, are also over-represented when it comes to occupational asthma.

What should sufferers of occupational asthma do?

Asthma sufferers should speak to their GP or respiratory physician if they notice that their asthma is worse at work or their asthma gets better when they are away from work, such as on weekends or during holidays. This might signal a link between a person’s asthma and their work, requiring further investigation and management.

Where occupational asthma is suspected, doctors will usually take a full occupational history and arrange for further testing and investigations which may include lung function testing, allergy testing and reviewing a workplace’s material safety data sheets to identify potential triggers.

It is important that sufferers of occupational asthma work with their employer to put in place a plan to reduce their exposure to workplace triggers.

What should workplaces do to prevent and manage occupational asthma?

In many cases, occupational asthma is preventable. Where possible, workplaces should avoid using substances that can trigger asthma by eliminating the substance or substituting it with a substance that is less hazardous. Where hazardous substances cannot be eliminated or substituted, effective engineering control measures such as ventilation and wet cutting and the use of PPE such as approved respiratory protection should be used.

Is occupational asthma compensable?

Long-standing or severe occupational asthma may require ongoing medical treatment and care, medications and time off work. In cases where a worker suffers permanent respiratory impairment, the worker may be entitled to lump sum compensation under their State or Territory’s workers’ compensation scheme.

How much compensation can I get?

The amount of compensation available will depend on the individual circumstances of the case, although in most cases, the level of the person’s respiratory impairment when assessed under a particular set of guidelines (called the “American Medical Association Guides to the Evaluation of Impairment”) will play an important role in determining how much lump sum compensation a person is entitled to. In some cases, it may also be possible to sue for damages for pain and suffering and economic loss.

When to speak to a lawyer

Sufferers of occupational asthma should seek legal advice about their potential compensation entitlements. Strict time limits for making a workers compensation claim apply so it’s important to get advice as soon as possible.  Even where a person has pre-existing asthma that is made worse by their work, they may still be entitled to compensation. 

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with occupational asthma, contact the experienced and friendly team at Gordon Legal on (03) 9603 3028 to discuss how we may be able to help you secure financial compensation.

Tess Dickie is a Principal Lawyer in Gordon Legal’s asbestos and dust diseases team. She is an experienced and passionate personal injury lawyer who helps sufferers of asbestos and occupational lung diseases and cancers secure the compensation they deserve.

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