Respiratory experts at Aberdeen have devised a database – which is the first of its type in Scotland - for monitoring the problem of asthma in the workplace.
There are up to 3,000 new cases of occupational asthma in the UK each year. The condition is caused by workers breathing in substances that sensitise and irritate the airways leading to worsening symptoms with each exposure. That figure rises to 7,000 cases a year if people with existing asthma, made worse by their work, are included.
However, those figures could be even higher as occupational asthma is often not recognised or can be diagnosed quite late on.
Now the University of Aberdeen has created a database which aims to establish the incidence of occupational asthma – as well as bronchitis and rhinitis – in North East Scotland. It should also provide more of an insight into the occupations with the greatest asthma risks.
Scottish SHIELD is the name of the programme and it is being overseen by Professor Jon Ayres, Head of the University’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Medicine.
Professor Ayres said: “Occupational asthma is under-recognised and yet occupation is the cause of asthma for around one in seven of all adults developing the condition during their adult life. There are over 400 recognised causes of occupational asthma known to us.
“The information from the database will enable us to get a better idea of the incidence of the condition in Scotland and will raise awareness of the risks of these exposures thus helping us work with employers to reduce the risk to their workforce.
“For many exposures there is a window of opportunity during which removal of the cause can lead to resolution of symptoms – after all, this is a curable form of asthma – but if left exposed some will develop progressive lung disease even, if subsequently, they are removed from exposure.”
The Scottish SHIELD system asks chest physicians to input specific details about their patients with occupational asthma, bronchitis or rhinitis – with each patient’s consent - into an on-line database. Where the patient agrees they are followed up by a questionnaire initially after six months and then again if necessary.
Professor Ayres added: “While it is important to know how many people are affected by these conditions we know relatively little about what happens to them over time – whether they are still exposed to the agent which caused their condition at work, have they moved to another job and do they still have symptoms.
“This will help us better understand the benefits of removing them from exposure both from their own point of view and from that of the employer.”
Scottish SHIELD is based on a surveillance system that currently operates in the West Midlands. A pilot study of Scottish SHIELD is being undertaken in the North-east of Scotland, but it is hoped the scheme will roll out across Scotland.
A number of substances in a wide range of workplaces can cause occupational asthma. The most important in the UK are isocyanates - paint hardeners used by industrial spraypainters, for instance those involved in car repairs. Other examples include flour in bakers; latex gloves used in the medical profession; grain which affects farmers and farm workers and chemical dyes used in hairdressing.