Respiratory Hazards



What is it?

Respiratory hazards are airborne substances or particulates emitted from dusts such as asbestos fibres or silica which is found in ballast, they also present themselves in fumes and gases . If exposure is uncontrolled or prolonged, and inhalation occurs,  this can have an adverse effect on your lungs. If you regularly work with these substances and exposure is inadequately controlled, you may be at risk  developing a respiratory illness. In addition, some of the substances can affect the nose, throat and other parts of your body, like your liver.

Work activities like, but not limited to, cutting, surface grinding, welding, tunnelling, chasing mortar before re-pointing, aspects of handling of ballast, aspects of track renewal and undertaking buildings and civils remedial works can cause exposure to  respiratory  hazards. Respiratory illnesses as a consequence of such an exposure can include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, silicosis and lung cancers.

Signs and symptoms

There are various signs and symptoms that you should report to your line manager or GP as soon as possible:

  • A persistent cough that lasts two or more weeks
  • A long-lasting cough that gets worse
  • Breathlessness, or being short of breath
  • Wheezing or tightness of your chest
  • Tiredness
  • Coughing up blood
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Chest or back pain
  • Difficulty swallowing or a hoarse voice

Should you ever need to visit your GP with the above symptoms, it is always worth mentioning the type of work you do and what substances you may be exposed to in the workplace


You can assist in the workplace by:

  • Ensure tasks are risk assessed and assessments have been briefed and are readily available
  • Ensure employees have received adequate training, instruction and information
  • Through planning, avoid exposure to respiratory hazards, where possible
  • If elimination is not possible, implement mitigations to reduce exposure so far as is reasonable practicable- Follow safe working practices that have been put in place by your employer
  • Before starting work make sure you know what hazards are in the work place, for example is asbestos known to be present
  • If it is not necessary to be around the respiratory hazards then stay clear
  • Only carry out work that is safe, for example don’t drill into walls until you have checked there is no known asbestos present
  • Use all respiratory  protective equipment (RPE) provided
  • Know how to use your RPE correctly and how to maintain it, so that it remains fit for purpose
  • Store RPE correctly when not in use, so that it doesn’t become contaminated by the substances you are working with
  • Report any health concerns to your line manager, for example if you develop any of the above symptoms and if they tend to improve when you are away from work
  • Report any underlying respiratory ill health to your line manager, i.e. asthma
  • Stop smoking – this increases your risk of developing lung and chest problems
  • Take part in health surveillance programmes when required
Diagnosed with a respiratory condition?

If you are diagnosed with a respiratory condition, occupational health will give workplace recommendations to you and your line manager It may be necessary to restrict your exposure to further respiratory hazards and in some instances, this may require you to be removed from work, however this depends on your diagnosis.

If you are able to continue working,  it is important that adequate and effective mitigations are in place to protect your lungs. This may involve but is not limited to  correct wearing and maintenance of your  Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) If you have medication for respiratory conditions, it is always sensible to check that they are safe to use when carrying out safety critical tasks by contacting the occupational health provider medication advice line. If your medication changes, you should always ask for updated advice..

It is important to remember to carry any medication, such as inhalers, to work with you especially if your work involves working outdoors.

Occupational health may wish to see you more often to assess your symptoms over time and ensure that any workplace recommendations remain up to date and continue to be appropriate. It is good practice to monitor your lung symptoms and any changes you notice when you are in different environments. Should you notice a change you will need to notify your manager of this, as soon as possible.  For more information on occupational health visit the Occupational Health service page.

Health surveillance

If you are exposed to respiratory hazards in the workplace, you may be asked to participate in a health surveillance process through Occupational Health Service Provider. This will involve health checks depending on the substance exposed to and / or your health condition. The assessment will involve an initial questionnaire and lung function test  to baseline your current respiratory health and allow for the early detection of any ill-health effects.

The information collected from your assessment will guide what you are advised to do at work in relation to substances that you are work with and how to protect yourself in order to prevent uncontrolled exposure. In some circumstances, if you have a condition that is likely to be made worse by certain substances, you may be advised avoid exposure It is important that you attend ongoing health surveillance appointments as this allows proactive monitoring of your health. If you have any health concerns you should raise them with your line manager as soon as possible.

Should you work with a known respiratory hazard and experience any of the symptoms listed below:

  • A persistent cough
  • Persistent shortness of breath
  • Weakness and tiredness

Speak to your manager who may refer you to occupational health and/or consult your GP.

Referrals can be made here

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