Much more should be done by government and employers to address the causes of occupational asthma, which costs the UK £95m-£135m in a year – split almost evenly between sufferers and the state – researchers say. Their study published in Thorax shows that previous estimates from the Health and Safety Executive were likely to be underestimates.
The condition is diagnosed in about 3000 people a year in the UK but many more cases remain undiagnosed, say the authors.
For their model they used six hypothetical people, a man and a woman who each developed asthma after they were exposed at work to either latex, isocyanates (used in insulation, paint, car seats, underlay and laminate) or flour/grain.
They used previously published data on asthma overall, and occupational asthma, to calculate the total financial impact of occupational asthma, including for example lost income and productivity, healthcare costs, taxation, and benefits payments.
The researchers calculated that over the lifetime of those affected, true costs were between £72m and £100m (£3.4m-£4.8m/year) – twice as high for men as for women. They add that, given that occupational asthma is recognised to be underdiagnosed by a third, the total could be nearer to £135m. Individuals each bore almost half of these costs (49% and 48% respectively). Employers bore a mere 3-4% of costs.
The authors suggest that reducing employees’ exposure to aggravating agents could lead to huge savings. They conclude that: “The findings also suggest that the employer should bear more responsibility for establishing approaches to disease reduction by introduction of appropriate exposure control interventions and changes in work processes, given the modest proportion of the cost they currently bear.”
“New strategies involving government and employers need to be developed to reduce the financial and health burden from occupational asthma.”