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Occupational asthma describes an allergic reaction that some people have when they are exposed to a particular substance. It can be triggered by seemingly innocuous substances – such as flour and various foods – as well as by exposure to things like wood dust and chemicals used in the manufacturing process. Such substances are called 'respiratory sensitisers' or asthmagens, and they can cause a change in a person's airways, known as the 'hypersensitive state'. Not everyone who becomes sensitised goes on to develop asthma, but once the lungs become hypersensitive, further exposure to the same substance, even at quite low levels, can cause an asthma attack. Symptoms include severe shortness of breath that can stop people from carrying out everyday tasks. Some sufferers have such severe symptoms that they are unable to work again.
A worker in a plastics manufacturing company has won £10,000 in compensation after he developed occupational asthma as a result of being exposed to the chemical isocyanate, which is widely used in the manufacture of plastics, coatings, varnish, polyurethane foams, two-pack paints and adhesives.
He was employed as a PVC panel maker and began suffering from breathing difficulties when using a machine that had not been fitted with a chemical fume extractor. The respiratory protective equipment provided was insufficient given the known risks involved in exposure to isocyanate. Even when an extraction unit was subsequently fitted to the machine, this proved to be inadequate and was poorly maintained.
When he was transferred to a different department, the man's condition began to improve, but his lungs have still not recovered from exposure to the chemical and he brought a personal injury claim for compensation on account of his employer's failure to protect his health.