Managing respiratory conditions in the workplace

Failure to correctly manage workplace respiratory hazards may put workers at risk of exposure to these preventable occupational diseases. It can also lead to an at-risk worker suffering ongoing respiratory difficulties, the need for higher doses of medication and a substantial, possibly irreversible, decline in lung function and associated disability.

It is important that there is communication between the PCBU, worker, treating physician and health and safety representative (where applicable) to ensure respiratory hazards and conditions, whether pre-existing or otherwise, are effectively managed.

Where necessary, consult with building managers and other relevant parties – it’s more likely that suitable, long term solutions to the problem can be found when everyone works together.

In complex situations, PCBUs should establish a clearer picture of the issue by obtaining the services of an appropriately qualified person (such as an occupational hygienist with skills in air quality) and then appropriate control measures can be developed in consultation with the affected workers. In these situations, the workplace conditions may need to be monitored and recorded as part of the workplace risk management program.

Identify hazards

Effective control and management of respiratory conditions, including asthma, starts with recognising potential sources.

Identify workplace activities that may put someone at risk of exposure. Talk (consult) with all of your workers about anything that could result in them being exposed to a respiratory illness. Analyse workplace incident reports. Check audits of the workplace layout and work practices. There may be a need for a competent person such as an occupational hygienist to assist in the identification process.

Consider who is at risk. Do you have any workers with pre-existing respiratory conditions?

Assess risks

To assess the risks of exposure to a respiratory illness, take into account:

  • the health effect of the air contaminant you are dealing with
  • the higher level control measures needed to control exposure ie. local exhaust ventilation or process enclosure
  • the type and frequency of exposure – What factors could contribute to exposure?
  • access to emergency and medical services
  • knowledge and training of workers
  • availability and use of personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • suitability of equipment used for the task
  • individual risk factors for each at-risk worker, such as pre-existing respiratory conditions
  • effectiveness of current risk control strategies

Control risks

To control the risks, follow the hierarchy of controls as much as possible. Use higher level controls first. Only use administrative controls and PPE to supplement the higher controls you’ve implemented. A combination of controls can be used.

Eliminate the hazard

  • have well-designed work premises and work processes
  • have plant equipment that is automated / remote controlled where possible

Isolate the hazard

To reduce the number of people exposed:

  • isolate high-risk work processes in ventilated enclosure
  • segregate high-risk work areas

Substitute the hazard

  • substitute chemicals and other hazardous substances for less hazardous types, where practicable

Engineering controls

  • install effective local exhaust ventilation
  • provide plant with enclosed cabins that filter out air contaminants and are air-conditioned

Administrative controls

Administrative controls and personal protective equipment should be part of a comprehensive control program – not the sole strategy for reducing exposure to respiratory hazards.

Administrative controls don’t remove the hazards - they limit or prevent people's exposure to them, and can include:

  • rotate worker tasks to limit their individual exposure time
  • ensure sufficient warnings are placed in high visibility areas to remind workers of the hazards arising from working in a high dust environment
  • regular workplace air quality monitoring, as required
  • implement work health assessments – before commencing employment and ongoing (see Section 3 for further guidance)
  • develop, in consultation with the worker and treating doctor, a workplace respiratory management plan, such as a workplace asthma management plan (see Section 4 for further guidance)
  • introduce workplace emergency respiratory management kit/s, such as an 'Asthma emergency management kit' (see Section 5 for further guidance)
  • develop safe work procedures, in consultation with workers, for:
    • regular inspection and maintenance of workplace emergency respiratory management kit/s
    • first aid and emergency situations, ensuring appropriate staff are qualified / competent to provide treatment in such situations and ensuring emergency communication equipment is appropriate and operational at all times.
    • prohibiting eating, drinking, smoking or applying cosmetics in areas where there is a risk of exposure to, or contamination by, causative agents
    • a buddy system, so colleagues can observe if at-risk workers are in respiratory difficulty; using their inhalers more often than usual; etc
    • a workplace flu vaccination program, that particularly encourages at-risk workers
    • good housekeeping
    • regular inspection and maintenance of plant and equipment air filter and duct systems (including work cars) for dust, pollens and fungus spores
    • monitoring of environmental conditions for outdoor workers – particularly pollen count, wind chill factor and wind direction
  • regular supervision and frequent health checks of at-risk workers
  • availability of alternative low-risk duties, where practicable
  • train and inform workers in risk identification, assessment (where applicable), and control measures

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

  • all PPE should be compliant with relevant Australian Standards
  • ensure appropriate suitable PPE is available, and used
  • provide appropriate respiratory protection, such as approved respirators; be they positive pressure air supplied respirators, powered air purifying respirators, single or double cartridge respirators (with or without built in goggles), disposable respirators, etc. Ensure PPE fits workers correctly
  • provide rubber boots or plastic disposable overshoes if the floor is likely to be contaminated
  • provide non-porous waterproof dressings to workers with broken skin
  • provide appropriate clothing where required eg plastic aprons, overalls, head coverings
  • provide a range of waterproof gloves, such as sterile and non-sterile, powder-free latex and vinyl, neoprene and nitrile. (Relevant SDSs provide valuable guidance)
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