A dusting down

Although the occupational hazards facing bakers do not often hit the headlines, their work exposes them to a surprising number of risks. Asthma is one of the most serious but, although potentially fatal, it can be difficult to prove negligence.

Tristram Sterry, a personal injury solicitor for Thompsons, looks at the risks of asthma for bakery workers, the obligations on employers to keep them safe and advises what to do in the event of an injury at work.

Occupational asthma

Bakers suffer from the second highest rate of occupational asthma because of the large quantities of dust they inhale from the flour and grain used in their workplaces.

Flour dust is classed as a substance hazardous to health (see below) as it causes not only asthma, but also short term respiratory, nasal and eye symptoms. Workers exposed to flour dust should have a Maximum Exposure Limit (MEL) of 10mg/m3 averaged over eight hours and a Short Term Exposure Limit (STEL) of 30mg/m3 averaged over 15 minutes.

Exposure to flour dust should be reduced as far below the MEL/STEL as is possible and should not exceed either of them. Workers can get guidance on this from the Health and Safety Executive (www.hse.gov.uk).

Dusts such as grain, flour, spices and seasonings can also cause rhinitis (runny or stuffy nose), conjunctivitis (watery or prickly eyes) and other irritant effects. Exposure to these should also be kept to a minimum.

Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002

Given that flour dust is classed as a substance hazardous to health, employers are required by law to:

• assess the risks to their employees
• decide what precautions are required
• prevent or adequately control any exposure, if reasonably practicable
• ensure control measures are used and that safety procedures are followed
• monitor the exposure
• carry out health surveillance such as dust monitoring
• prepare plans and procedures to deal with accidents and emergencies

The risk assessment must include a consideration of the hazardous properties of the substance; the safety information provided by the supplier; the likely levels of exposure; exposure limits; and exposure monitoring and health surveillance results.

Where there is a risk, employers must monitor the health of employees and retain the records for up to 40 years. If an employer cannot prevent exposure, they have to apply protective measures, such as using appropriate processes, systems, controls and equipment; controlling exposure at source for example by ventilation and extraction; limiting the number of employees exposed and the duration of the exposure; providing protective equipment (like face masks, respirators, protective clothing).

Employees must also be provided with information about the hazards, and given appropriate instruction in the use of the hazardous substance and adequate training.

What to do in the event of an injury

If someone thinks they have contracted asthma as a result of exposure to flour dust (or any other hazardous substance in their workplace), they should first of all seek advice from their doctor.

If asthma is diagnosed they should get advice through the union's legal advice service as soon as possible as to whether they might have a negligence claim against their employer. The union's health and safety rep or local office will be able to put them in touch.

It is important to act quickly because there is a three-year limitation period that applies from the date that the person becomes aware that they have an illness caused by their work.

Someone suffering from work-related asthma may also be entitled to Industrial Injury Benefit (or other benefits such as attendance allowance) from the government, which they should check out with an advice agency such as the Citizens Advice Bureaux.

Remember, ignorance is no excuse when it comes to making a claim.