Sun, May 16, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Workplace allergies trigger employer abuses as well as illness

By Robin McKie  /  LONDON , THE OBSERVER

Shane Osborn is an unusual chef -- and not because of the remarkable dishes he prepares at his Pied a Terre restaurant in London. He has achieved his strange status by becoming allergic to food.

Eggplants, lemons, limes, mushrooms, red wine, fish -- all trigger anaphylactic shock in the Michelin-starred chef. Just touching fish or sniffing a citrus fruit causes his throat to swell. Within minutes he is choking and splut-tering.

His condition, which has developed slowly over the past four years, has turned Osborn's place of work into a minefield of misery.

"I've had to completely rethink the way I work," said the Australian-born chef.

Nor is Osborn alone. A growing number of people are experiencing the ultimate workplace misery -- they have become allergic to their occupation. Nurses are suffering severe reactions to the latex gloves they wear to protect their patients; garage workers are getting sick from exposure to isocyanates in spray paints; and hairdressers are afflicted with dermatitis.

A recent survey revealed that four out of 10 office UK workers suffer headaches, lethargy, breathing problems and itchy skin because of allergies to substances they encounter at work. Even London's venerable St Paul's Cathedral has been blamed for making its staff sick. Workers said a cleaning paste that was sprayed on stonework was making them ill, though managers denied the charge.

The problem is getting worse, doctors say. The UK's Health and Safety Executive has now launched a campaign to reduce occupational asthma by a third by the decade's end, according to a magazine for allergy sufferers. The UK's umbrella trade union organization has launched training courses to reduce the problem.

In the past, many cases of occupational allergy were linked to two prime causes: workers involved in the manufacture of detergents and doctors, nurses and other health workers who use latex gloves. Both problems have slowly been eradicated, only to be replaced by new allergy sources.

"Today the principal source of occupational asthma cases is the isocyanate paints that are used to spray cars," said Professor Anthony Newman-Taylor of London's Brompton Hospital.

Isocyanates are small molecules that form large, complex chemicals when mixed with other substances. In the respiratory tract they form new chemicals that trigger an immune attack that can spread and have severe effects.

Controlling the use of paints containing isocyanates is now a major health problem. Newman-Taylor pointed out that most UK workplaces in which car spraying is done are small garages that often pay little attention to health and safety rules.

"In the past, major employers like the British health service and major chemical companies were the organizations responsible for most cases," he said. "These new cases are going to be harder to trace and deal with."

The depth of the problem was stressed by other health experts.

"Asthma has the potential to ruin lives," said one official who declined to be identified by name. "Some sufferers cannot work again, and others may have to change jobs to avoid exposure to the substance that caused the asthma. They may no longer be able to use their specialist skills and may face a restricted lifestyle."

Apart from isocyanates in paints, the principal sources of occupational allergies and asthma are flour and grain dust in bakeries; chemicals used in leather tanning and paper-making; wood dust at building sites and in sawmills; latex among lab technicians, doctors and nurses; solder used by welders and electricians; and animals used by lab technicians and scientists.

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