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February 4, 2015

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Harm reduction: occupational asthma

Occupational asthma remains a serious workplace issue. The HSE Asthma Partnership Board brings together organisations to collaborate on research findings and ensure they are relevant to practice. Jill Joyce explains its work.

At’s 7th International Conference in Glasgow last year, there was a call for greater collaboration between industry and academia to help reduce the number of people harmed in the workplace.[1]

Established by the Health and Safety Commission in January 2002, the Asthma Partnership Board (APB) aims to do just that by working at a strategic level to reduce the incidence of occupational asthma. Despite good progress in some areas, occupational asthma is still a major issue, with several hundred cases reported annually in Great Britain through The Health and Occupation Reporting network (THOR). The true incidence is likely to be substantially higher.

The APB brings together different organisations that are working to combat the threat posed by occupational asthma and asthma made worse by work. Chaired by Kären Clayton, director of the HSE Long Latency Health Risks Division, the board brings together the following organisations:

  • Health and Safety Executive.
  • National Health Service.
  • British Occupational Hygiene Society.
  • Chemical Industries Association.
  • Institution of Occupational Safety and Health.
  • Society of Occupational Medicine.
  • The TUC (and UNITE).
  • Bakers’ Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU).

Board members hold positions in a diverse range of occupations, ranging from occupational physicians in large manufacturing organisations and in the NHS, to medical advisers, academic researchers and safety and health practitioners.

Meetings are held twice a year and provide an opportunity to take time to step back and reflect on what is happening nationwide with asthma, learn about members’ current work and highlight priorities for action. Meetings enable members to test out ideas with peers from different walks of life.

Sometimes a member will have ‘a germ of an idea’ and will discuss this with the board to help them develop it into a research project. A recent example of this is work-related aggravated asthma (WAA). It has been known for a long time that working with certain substances can cause asthma – but what if you already have asthma and then start working in an environment that makes your asthma worse?

Although well researched in the USA, the issue has not really been explored in Great Britain and the group identified a knowledge gap. HSE provided funding and board member David Fishwick, a respiratory specialist physician from the NHS, and Lisa Bradshaw of HSL carried out a review of the literature to clarify a definition of the problem, its prevalence, the causative agents associated with the onset of WAA, the risk factors, the symptoms and diagnosis, and an estimate of the socio-economic burden.

Another example is occupational asthma in cleaners. This has led to a three-part HSE-funded project looking at the profile of occupational asthma in cleaners, components of cleaning products that could be potential asthmagens and practical solutions for the control of exposure to cleaning products.

A third area of interest has been asthma in bakeries. Although an overall decline in asthma in other industries has been reported in Great Britain, the trend is reversed for bakeries. IOSH has carried out a development fund project to try and raise awareness of the hazards in retail bakeries, providing free training and materials that could be used to cascade the learning to others in the workplace.

The board is also a useful conduit if comments are needed on information leaflets produced by group members, for example, new trade union guidance on aspergillosis – a workplace respiratory health hazard for farm workers.

In a nutshell, the APB is about partnership – breaking down silo working, sharing information and looking for ways to reduce the asthma burden in Great Britain.

Jill Joyce is senior policy and research adviser at IOSH



  1. SHP Interface, November 2014, page 23.

For more information visit WAA Review of Reviews research:

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