Do you suspect that there may be substances at your workplace which might either cause or trigger asthma?
To eliminate or reduce the risk of healthy workers developing asthma or asthma being triggered in those who may already suffer from the condition means modifying the workplace or the substances used. This means controlling the hazard at source - rather than modifying, screening or excluding workers from the workplace.
Where possible exposure to sensitisers must be prevented. In addition to this, people who already have asthma should be protected from being exposed to triggers. This can be done by:
- identifying and then eliminating all substances that could be sensitisers or triggers from the workplace. If this is not possible, they should be replaced by safer alternatives.
- If elimination or substitution is not possible, workers should be protected against hazardous substances. The risk must be controlled in the following order: isolate the process producing the hazard from the worker; extract the hazard from the workplace; provide the worker with protective clothing and respiratory protection devices (eg a mask).
- If neither of the above steps is possible, or if there is still a risk after the above actions have been taken, then exposure should be reduced to the lowest possible level. This may mean limiting the amount of time a worker is exposed to a process/substance by introducing job rotation, for example.
The following should be implemented in the workplace:
- Health surveillance of workers to ensure that any problems are identified. Recent studies have established a strong link between dermatitis and asthma, so the incidence of dermatitis should also be monitored;
- Regular inspections to identify sensitisers and triggers;
- Eliminate triggers (eg cigarette smoke) and sensitisers;
- If elimination is not possible, substitute the asthma-causing substance, using a safe or safer alternative;
- If not possible, the process involved should be enclosed to prevent exposure;
- If this doesn't work, reduce exposure by using ventilation;
- Only if all else fails then use respiratory protective equipment (including Respiratory protection devices such as masks) - which must be of the proper type, properly fitted and maintained;
- Training for the workforce on occupational asthma, possible causes, use of PPE, etc.
The elected OHS reps have the right to be consulted and fully involved at every stage. Reps should also:
- Hold regular meetings with workers - ensure that members of your DWG are aware of the issue. Encourage them to report any difficulties they may experience. For those who have asthma, ask them to consider whether it gets worse during the working week, either during the day or at night, or whether it gets better when they are not at work or on holidays.
- Carry out regular inspections to identify possible irritants and sensitisers, to talk with members, and to check on any control measures that have been introduced.
- Check that your employer is complying with the Hazardous Substances and Materials chapter of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2007: there should be a register of hazardous substances and also copies of up to date Material Safety Data Sheets for all substances used in your workplace. As the rep you have the right to access these. Check them to identify whether they may contain sensitisers.
- Ensure that MSDSs for new substances are provided and checked before they are introduces into the workplace.
- If a risk has been identified, then the employer must have introduced controls to eliminate/minimise the risk. Ensure that your employer consults with you BEFORE implementing controls.
More information on the National Asthma Foundation of Australia website, including websites and resources.
Last amended February 2015