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Supporting employees with respiratory conditions

Information and guidance for employers on supporting employees who have respiratory conditions including legal obligations.

​Approximately 1 in 5 people in the UK have developed some form of respiratory condition, with over half of them needing to take some form of treatment, such as inhalers, to control the condition. Respiratory condition may also be known as lung disease/disorder and pulmonary disease.

The respiratory tract is the system that allows you to breathe air into your lungs and out again. When talking about the respiratory tract we include the throat, the trachea known as the windpipe and the lungs.

Respiratory conditions may be caused by

  • infection
  • smoking tobacco or breathing in second hand tobacco smoke
  • exposure to chemicals or air pollution such as radon or asbestos
  • workplace exposure such as wood dust, isocyanates and flour dust.

Work-related respiratory conditions covers a range of illnesses that are caused or made worse by breathing in hazardous substances that damage the lungs such as dusts, fumes and gases. The most prevalent of these conditions are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma and silicosis.

Some workplace settings and job roles are more at risk of respiratory conditions. These include

  • welders
  • quarry and stone workers
  • construction workers
  • vehicle paint sprayers
  • bakers.

If the cause of the respiratory condition is thought to be work related then as the employer you have a duty of care to ensure that you control the risks and prevent exposure as much as is reasonably practicable. Get more information on what you need to do to protect your staff on our breathing pages.

There are various different types of respiratory condition. Some of the common ones include

  • asthma
  • occupational asthma
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • lung cancer
  • mesothelioma
  • pneumonia.

The symptoms of a respiratory condition differ slightly depending on which type the person has and which part of the respiratory system is affected, but the most common symptoms include

  • persistent cough or wheeze
  • shortness of breath on exertion
  • feeling of tightness to your chest
  • coughing up mucus
  • frequent chest infections or colds and flu.

The symptoms vary from person to person, and can be worse in the winter months when they are more susceptible to colds and flu, when implementing support in the workplace an understanding of the condition and the possibly symptoms and triggers is useful.

Diagnosis of a Respiratory Condition

The GP may ask them to go for a chest x-ray or carry out a test called spirometry which is a non-invasive test to assess lung function, this test can be carried out in the GP practice if available. They may also carry out an arterial blood test, which is blood from an artery rather than a vein to measure blood gases (oxygen; carbon dioxide and others).

These tests help the medical practitioner (GP or other) to diagnose respiratory conditions and determine what treatment would work best.

Treatment of Respiratory Condition

Treatment can ease the symptoms, prevent complications and slow disease progression. Medication may include inhalers that include bronchodilators to help relax the muscles of the airway, and help widen them so you can breathe easier, these can also be given via a nebulizer. These might cause other side effects that you might need to consider in the work place.

They may also be prescribed oxygen therapy if their blood oxygen levels are too low, and may be given a portable unit to help maintain normal activity, if this is the case then you would need to also consider your fire and emergency arrangements in your risk assessment process.

Your employee may have more than one health care provider treating them including the GP and respiratory specialists; and depending on the type of respiratory condition ie lung cancer they may need to be seen by a surgical consultant and oncologist.

How to support employees in the workplace

You may find employees with a diagnosis of respiratory condition may have increased levels of sickness absence, especially in the winter months, or they may need to attend the hospital, their GP or their specialist more frequently than those without the health condition.

Authorised absence, out with the normal organisation sickness absence triggers, should be considered an appropriate adjustment under the Equality Act 2010, this would be identified within your Supporting Staff Attendance Policy.

If you feel your policy doesn’t include this, you can get support from our Supporting staff attendance pages.

Other areas that you can consider when supporting an employee with a respiratory condition may include

  • fluctuating health and stamina levels which may affect them more if they do shift work or full time hours
  • does their medication have side effects that you need to consider when looking at their job role and their work rotas
  • can they safely use their medication in the workplace ie an inhaler
  • if they are prescribed portable oxygen you should review your risk assessments including fire
  • the nature of the work they do, is it physically demanding for them, can they be redeployed or their duties amended to allow them to continue to work?
  • review the risk assessments for the job they do, consider if your employee is working alone and how they would call for help if they became unwell
  • do they drive as part of their job role; if so do you need to inform the DVLA and insurance company of their diagnosis?
  • do you have contingency plans in place if your employee becomes unwell, becomes ill at work and / or is unable to remain at work? It might be worth reviewing your first aid arrangements
  • encourage them to get the flu vaccine which should be available free of charge for them via their GP practice.

Key sources of support