Back pain and stress are still the largest causes of absenteeism at work, but they have a new rival - asthma. New research from the TUC and the National Asthma Campaign reveals that asthma caused by poor working conditions is costing UK business 320,000 sick days a year. In addition, 150,000 people currently suffer from work-related asthma and the figure is increasing by nearly 5% a year.
Compensation claims for work-related asthma - virtually unheard of three years ago - are now growing faster than for any other disease. The largest award so far has been £500,000 to Transport and General Workers Union member Violette Hutchins, who developed asthma from solder fumes while working on an electronics component line. Under health and safety regulations, employers are obliged to minimise its causes. They should even provide respiratory equipment if necessary.
One in three asthma sufferers is obliged to give up their jobs but, under the 1997 Disability Discrimination Act, it is illegal to make sufferers of work-related asthma redundant. 'We're simply saying to employers, don't give people asthma. If employees have asthma but are still able to work, give them a chance to work,' says Owen Tudor, health and safety officer at the TUC.
The boom in work-related asthma is a peculiarly British phenomenon. The UK has a surfeit of the industries that use substances causing asthma - over 200 listed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). By contrast, mainland Europe reports much lower levels of workplace wheezing. The problem is focused around manufacturing, construction, chemical and health industries.
Three of the most common causes are paints and glues that use substances called isocyanates, chemicals which are used in the pharmaceutical industry, and powder from cheap latex gloves.
Claims that it is hard to distinguish work-related asthma from conditions such as hay fever are dismissed by the TUC. 'If asthma comes on during the week, or disappears when you go on holiday, it's work-related,' says Tudor. Yet knowing what to do is another matter. The National Asthma Campaign and several of the largest unions have persuaded the HSE to issue a legally enforceable code of practice for employers. The Government has completed a first draft, but the obligatory consultation process means it's unlikely to be seen before the millennium.
Nevertheless, the existing law has teeth. 'Employers must recognise the law is on our side,' says Sarah Featherstone of the National Asthma Campaign.
'Employees must be shielded from dangerous substances, or the substances should be removed from the workplace. To suggest that workplace asthma sufferers should get a different job is just not good enough.' Tudor has a simple first step for employers. 'Ask employees whether they have asthma,' he says. 'If they do, obey the law.'.