GP’s Urged to Recognise Occupational Asthma

GP’s Urged to Recognise Occupational Asthma

A recent report published in the scientific journal, Occupational Medicine, has found that many people who develop occupational asthma are not correctly diagnosed by GPs. Exposure to hazardous substances, poor ventilation and failure to provide adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) causes one in ten cases of asthma in adults, however an audit of patient records suggests that GP’s are failing to recognise this in three quarters of patients.

Every year up to 3000 people develop asthma because they are exposed to hazardous substances at work. These include, but are not limited to;

  • Chemicals called isocyanates.  These are the most common cause of occupational asthma in the UK. Jobs in which you may be exposed to these chemicals include spray painting, foam moulding using adhesives, and making foundry cores and surface coatings.
  • Dust from flour and grain from working in industries such as baking and bakeries, farm work and grain transport.
  • Wood dust, particularly from hard wood dusts and western red cedar. This will affect people working in carpentry, joinery and sawmilling.
  • Colophony – this is widely present in soldering fumes but also in glues and some floor cleaners, and may affect people in the electronics industry, welding industry.
  • Dust from latex rubber. This will affect people working with latex gloves, such as nursing, dentistry or laboratory technicians.
  • Dust from insects and animals, and from products containing them. This may impact people doing laboratory work, farm work or work with shellfish.

Patients lack of awareness of occupational asthma due to the absence of an early diagnosis means patients are missing out on the possibility of significantly improving their symptoms or even making complete recovery due to the avoidance of further exposure.  However, failures to diagnose the condition and delays in accessing specialist advice mean that two thirds of sufferers never make a full recovery.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham conducted an audit of the electronic patient records of working-age asthmatics. The 2008 British Guideline on the Management of Asthma recommends asking two screening questions to those suffering with Asthma, as together these have a high significance in identifying whether patients are indeed suffering from occupational asthma. Despite the existence of these guidelines it was recorded that in the about report, that in 86% of cases GP’s had failed to ask simple questions relating to the patients occupation and in a shocking 98% of case had failed to record if they had ask simple screening questions about whether their asthma symptoms improved whilst away from work, such as during weekends and holidays, key signs that their asthma could be work related

Dr Gareth Walters, the lead author, said “Most workers with new asthma symptoms present to their GPs first, so it is important for health care professionals working in primary care to recognize when these symptoms might be caused by or related to work. Currently occupational asthma is very costly to the NHS and to society – and an early diagnosis can prevent on-going debilitating symptoms, time off work and financial loss for the worker.”

The Society of Occupational Medicine has urged GPs to always question patients who present with respiratory problems about their job, the materials they work with and whether their symptoms improve when they are away from work. They should also be aware of those trades that carry particular risks such as those outlined above.

“Highlighting the prevalence of occupational asthma is absolutely key, as too often work-related factors are overlooked,” said Dr Richard Heron, President of the Society of Occupational Medicine. “About 70% of the UK workforce does not have access to occupational health care. This makes it vital that general practitioners are assessing asthma patients for potential work-related causes and referring to specialists where appropriate. More importantly, employers need to be aware of those substances that may cause asthma and where possible remove them or minimise exposure.”

If you feel you are experiencing symptoms of occupational asthma, visit your GP today! For more details on how to make a claim Contact us on 0808 252 5504.

[1] G. I. Walters, E. E. McGrath and J. G. Ayres Audit of the recording of occupational asthma in primary care;
[2] Nicholson PJ, Cullinan P, Burge PS, Boyle C.Occupational asthma: prevention, identification & management: systematic review & recommendations. London: British Occupational Health Research Foundation, 2010.
[3] Health & Safety Executive. List of substances that can cause occupational asthma. London: HSE.