There are two main occupational illnesses which have been identified by the Health and Safety Authority in Ireland as common diseases caused by a variety of chemical substances found in workplaces across the county.
These have been identified as:
- Occupational dermatitis
- Occupational asthma
Occupational dermatitis is a skin disorder which can be caused from coming into contact with certain hazardous substance in the workplace i.e. corrosive, irritating or sensitising chemical products. Occupational dermatitis manifests itself as an inflammation of the skin which can become red, itchy and cause blistering. In some cases, the skin becomes hard and can thicken and become cracked, causing sores.
As these issues occur when people come in contact with the chemical products, the condition is called contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is the most common notified work-related disease in Ireland. It can have long term consequences for workers health and can even affect the ability of employees to complete their work-related tasks.
Determining whether employees are suffered from occupational dermatitis or non-occupational dermatitis can be difficult to determine. However, there are a number of suggestions put forward which can differentiate between the two:
- Is the condition mainly on the hands and exposed skin?
- Does the skin disorder improve away from the work environment and then return upon return to work?
- Is more than one person affected in the same work area or while handling the same chemical materials.
Research has indicted that 10 years after the condition first occurs, up to 50% of affected workers will still have some skin problems.
Asthma is an inflammatory disorder of the airways. Occupational asthma is asthma which is caused by breathing in chemical dusts, fumes, vapours and/or other substances in the workplace. Asthma related to the workplace are divided into two different categories:
- Work aggravated asthma.
This is developed by persons with a history of pre-existing asthma. These people may get wheezy or have other symptoms at work when exposed to specific chemicals. The problem can often be eliminated by improving the work environment, introducing ventilation or avoiding the irritant altogether.
- Occupational asthma.
Caused as a direct result of workplace exposure. There are 2 forms of occupational asthma:
- Irritant induced occupational asthma – usually occurs after a single, very high exposure to an irritant chemical and those exposed will develop symptoms within 24 hours of exposure. Symptoms will tend to improve over time and may go away entirely but if symptoms continue beyond 6 months persistent problems are possible.
- Allergic occupational asthma – caused by sensitisation or becoming allergic to a specific chemical agent in the workplace over a period of time. If exposure is consistent, the period of greatest risk is the first two years of exposure, but the risk does not go away after that but may reduce somewhat.
Work related asthma accounts for 10% of all adult onset asthma.