Objective: To study the health, employment, and financial outcome of occupational asthma.
Design: A follow study of workers with confirmed occupational asthma.
Setting: A specialist occupational lung disease clinic.
Subjects: All workers had a diagnosis of occupational asthma made at least one year earlier. Diagnosis was confirmed by serial peak expiratory flow measurement, specific bronchial provocation testing, or specific immunology.
Main outcome measures: Respiratory symptoms, medication, pulmonary function, employment state, and financial position.
Results: 112 of a total of 140 eligible workers were followed up. 32% of patients remained exposed to the causative agent. These workers had more symptoms at follow up than those removed and a greater number were taking inhaled steroids. Continued exposure was also associated with a fall in % predicted forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) of 3% compared with that at presentation. Their median loss of annual income due to occupational asthma was 35%. Those removed from exposure were worse off financially (median loss 54% of annual income), had fewer respiratory symptoms than the group who remained exposed, and their % predicted FEV1 had improved by 4.6%. Statutory compensation and that obtained by common law suits did not match the loss of earnings due to the development of occupational asthma. Of the workers removed from exposure, those who no longer complained of breathlessness had been diagnosed significantly earlier after the onset of their first symptom (48 v 66 months, p = 0.001) and had a significantly higher FEV1 at presentation (90% v 73% predicted, p = 0.008) compared with those who were still breathless. They had developed symptoms earlier after first exposure (48 v 66 months, p > 0.05) and had been removed from exposure sooner (eight v 12 months, p > 0.05).
Conclusion: Removal from exposure after diagnosis of occupational asthma is beneficial in terms of symptoms and lung function, but is associated with a loss of income. Early diagnosis is important for symptomatic improvement after removal from exposure. Inadequate compensation may contribute to the workers' decision to remain exposed after diagnosis.