Dr Peter Jezukaitis said some workers may take sick days due to asthma and claim compensation for it, but the condition remains under-reported and undiagnosed.
“Occupational asthma can be hard to spot and accurately diagnose, but needs to be more commonly thought of by workers and health care professionals,” he said.
The illness accounts for at least 200 workers’ compensation claims a year in Australia, but Jezukaitis believes the number is actually higher, possibly in the thousands.
The 2015 Hidden Cost of Asthma report from Asthma Australia found that asthma cost employers $526.7m, mainly due to temporary absenteeism.
Recognising and managing triggers in the workplace could help to reduce this cost, prevent asthma episodes, improve productivity and help businesses retain employees.
Jezukaitis, who spoke Monday at Australasian Asthma Conference today explained how early diagnosis, eliminating or managing common triggers in workplaces could help the one in nine Australians who have asthma.
“The airways can become reactive to an allergen or irritant at work that causes asthma symptoms. This can happen to someone with existing asthma but in some cases an adult can experience asthma for the first time due to high exposures or certain triggers in the workplace,” he said.
“There is a list of over 400 different chemicals known to cause or exacerbate asthma including cleaning products, hardeners in paint and even hairdressing products. There are also other triggers such as pollen for those working outdoors, latex and antiseptics in health care, and even wheat flour dust in bakeries.”
Employers should keep workers aware of exposures and their adverse health effects in the workplace.
For their part, employees with asthma should understand that their working environment may have an effect on their asthma, and should discuss this with their doctor as part of the recommended annual asthma review, according to Michele Goldman, CEO of Asthma Australia which provides asthma first-aid training in schools and workplaces.
“Ask yourself: ‘Is my asthma worse at work?’” she said.
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Employers have a “duty of care” to their employees to identify hazards, assess and manage risks including exposures that cause occupational asthma, a leading occupational physician said.