Allergy Awareness Week – Employers could do better
As Allergy Awareness Week approaches, Annabel Chadwick, Head of COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) at industrial disease expert Roberts Jackson, says employers continue in their failure to protect employees from allergens at work.
The number of cases of employers failing to act when employees flag a workplace allergy does not seem to be abating. Employers have a duty to take the health and safety of their employees seriously, but this is so often not the case.
Allergy UK estimates that at least 5.7 million people in the UK could be allergic to their work place.
Workplace skin disease affects thousands
The 2016 Work-related skin disease report by the Health & Safety Executive shows thousands of people are still suffering, with an estimated 6000 new cases of ‘skin problems’ caused or made worse by work each year over the last three years.
The report states that there are an estimated 17,000 people in work with skin problems they regard as caused or made worse by work. Figures show that there has been little change over the last 10 years in the prevalence of self- reported skin problems caused or made worse by work.
Most occupational skin disease cases identified by dermatologists are contact dermatitis, with contact with soaps and cleaning materials and working with wet hands being the most common causes. Occupations with the highest rates are florists, hairdressers, cooks, beauticians, and various manufacturing and health care related occupations.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (MHSW) and Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH), employers have a legal duty to assess the risks that could cause dermatitis and prevent employees coming into contact with substances that could cause the disease. The employer should also ensure regular health surveillance is carried out by trained personnel and to provide adequate training and protection for employees.
Workplace Asthma still prevalent
One in 10 cases of asthma in adults (both new asthma symptoms and childhood asthma symptoms returning) is caused by work-related factors.
Occupational asthma is the most common cause of adult onset asthma and makes up 9 -15 per cent of cases of asthma in adults of working age. In some industries up to 10 per cent of employees develop occupational asthma.
According to the Work-related and Occupational Asthma 2016 report by the Health & Safety Executive the jobs most commonly affected by workplace asthma involve working with dusts from flours and grains, animal feed and bedding, spray-painting, manufacturing, welding and soldering.
There are five key actions employers need to consider to protect their employees in a potentially asthma-triggering workplace:
- Protect employees from the causes of occupational asthma and conditions that trigger symptoms of pre-existing asthma at work.
- Provide a programme of health surveillance and access to up to date information on preventing occupational asthma.
- Ensure immediate investigation and prompt diagnosis, management and protection for people who develop symptoms of occupational asthma.
- Ensure all employees know what to do if a colleague experiences an asthma attack.
- Ensure employees understand how to avoid putting themselves and others at risk.
‘Explosion’ in GM enzymes contributing to problems
According to a recent study published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine, there has been an ‘explosion’ in the use of genetically modified enzymes used in cleaning products, perfumes, medicines and even food and these enzymes could be potent allergens and should be tested like other potentially hazardous chemicals.
Whilst some of the products are labeled as natural, researchers say genetically engineering the enzyme protein may change its allergenic properties.
Analysis showed that 23% of the employees they investigated as part of the study had antibodies to the genetically modified enzymes to which they were regularly exposed during working hours.
The researchers say that the growth of enzyme technology has been propelled by new developments in industrial processing, consumer demand for low-fat foods and “natural” flavours. Industrial processes within the artificial fragrance, food technology sector and manufacture of detergents and medicines are all affected.