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Factsheet – Respiratory diseases
- What are respiratory diseases?
- Potential impact on work
- Legal duties
- Suggested adjustments
- Further information
What are respiratory diseases?
Respiratory diseases and conditions are very common in the UK. The British Lung Foundation estimates that about 10,000 people in the UK are diagnosed every week with lung disease and that someone dies from a lung disease every five minutes.
Respiratory diseases affect about one in five of the population. It includes common conditions such as lung cancers, cystic fibrosis, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Respiratory conditions often co-exist with other conditions such as heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease and arthritis.
Some conditions will result in a gradual deterioration. In contrast, others will be long-term and can be well-controlled, but experience occasional flare-ups.
Most people are treated with lifestyle interventions and inhalers. However, some people may require periodic steroids, hospitalisation, and physio. Occasionally some people will need transplants.
How does it affect an individual?
This will depend on the type of respiratory condition and the symptoms, but common symptoms include:
- shortness of breath
- reduced ability to carry out physically demanding tasks during flare-ups
- increased risk of respiratory infections with severe symptoms.
Potential impact on work
Many people can manage their respiratory conditions well with little or no impact on work. Temperature and humidity can exacerbate breathing problems in some people with respiratory diseases.
Some people may find certain times of the year, such as the pollen season, trigger a deterioration in their symptoms. This is common for those who have asthma and a pollen allergy, for example.
Allergens can be a trigger for many people, and the workplace may increase the risk of a flare-up. For example, wood dusts can cause occupational asthma, or vet staff may develop cat allergies.
There may be a slight increase in absence levels, especially during the winter months, as people catch more colds and flu.
People with cystic fibrosis may need more adjustments than those with more common respiratory diseases. Occupational Health should be able to advise you about this on a case-by-case basis.
The Equality Act 2010
In the UK, employers have duties to:
- prevent discrimination, and
- provide reasonable adjustments
for their disabled employees. This means that it is unlawful for employers to treat applicants, job candidates and employees unfavourably because of their disability.
The Equality Act also requires employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for their disabled employees.
No two people with respiratory disease will have the same needs, and so any adjustments should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some that you may wish to consider include:
- Keeping symptom triggers to a minimum. This might include not allowing pets into the work area if someone has a dog allergy, for example.
- Where another employee uses an assistance dog, such as someone with a visual impairment, then the needs of both people will have to be met. This may mean not sitting near each other or even in the same room as the dog. Local extraction systems can help reduce the spread of allergens too.
- If someone has developed occupational asthma or develops an allergy to a workplace trigger, they must be removed from the allergen. If your staff work with materials and chemicals known to increase the risk of developing an allergy or asthma, you should already have systems in place for this and occupational health for health surveillance and advice.
- Occasionally, some people will work or visit your workplace who use oxygen as part of their treatment. In most offices, retail and food outlets, this should not be a problem. Oxygen is highly flammable, and a risk assessment may be required. Health and safety, fire safety, and occupational health should help you to meet any legislative requirements.
- Most people with respiratory disease will carry emergency medication with them as breathing difficulties can occur suddenly and be life-threatening. Approximately three people a day die from an asthma attack in the UK. Anyone who has a respiratory disease must have rapid access to their medication.
- A personal emergency evacuation plan (PEEP) may be required for someone who has breathing difficulties. This may be needed on a temporary or permanent basis.
- It may be necessary for the person with respiratory disease to have their workstation close to exits and facilities such as toilets, lifts and kitchen areas. It may also be helpful to ensure that any meetings are within easy walking distance or that transport can be arranged if off-site.
- Access within a building may be challenging. For example, stairs can be difficult for people with severe respiratory disease. They may need to use a lift. Heavy doors can also be challenging, and so push-button opening systems can be very helpful.
- There may be times when a person with a respiratory disease has a flare-up. They may benefit from a temporary move to a desk-based job, especially if their role is generally physically demanding. Flexibility in working hours and location can also be helpful.
- People with respiratory disease will require time off work to attend appointments related to their condition, for example, routine check-ups or treatment appointments. Some people need periodic medication, which can only be given in a clinical environment.
- Sometimes a person may need to take time off work due to the severity of their symptoms. Breathing difficulties can be debilitating with life-threatening complications. There may be times when a person requires to be in hospital for treatment or surgery. A graded return to work and duties can be helpful in these situations.
- It is best practice to have policies and procedures that distinguish between sickness absence taken for a reason relating to a disability and general sickness absence. Disabled employees must not be treated less favourably than their colleagues for a reason relating to their disability.
For more information on suggested adjustments, specific barriers for respiratory conditions and information about the law, please see our other resources in the Knowledge Hub.
For more detailed information and advice about a specific situation, contact the Advice Service: Tel:+44-20-7403-3020 |Textphone: +44-20-7403-0040
British Lung Foundation
18 Mansell St, London, E1 8AA
Helpline: 03000 030 555
Asthma UK (partnered with British Lung Foundation)
Asthma UK, 18 Mansell St, London, E1 8AA
Helpline: 0300 222 5800
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