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Asthmagens in the Food Processing Industry and Bakeries

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

Research suggests that workplace exposures account for one in ten cases of new or current asthma cases in adults. Workers exposed to a variety of asthma-inducing agents such as flour (rye, wheat, barley, oat, soya), egg and milk proteins, storage mites, linseed, green coffee bean, castor bean, tea dust, rosehip, shellfish proteins, fish proteins, cocoa proteins and proteolytic enzymes, are at risk of contracting work-related asthma.

Immunological Response Resulting in Hypersensitivity

Occupational Asthma is a disease induced by exposure to an agent that is a respiratory sensitiser. Encountering this type of agent may result in human hypersensitivity deriving from an immunological reaction. A single exposure can result in hypersensitivity although, a minority of exposed subjects will become sensitised, usually after an asymptomatic period of exposure lasting several weeks, months or even years. Once sensitised, the worker may suffer an asthma attack following exposure to concentrations which were once tolerable before sensitisation.

Respiratory sensitisers have the ability to stimulate the lymphocytes and the associated immune response. Lymphocytes are white blood cells that form part of the body's immune system.

Not all workers develop hypersensitivity. However, in some instances, the proportion of workers who are affected can be very high. Especially atopic workers, those who have a genetic tendency to develop allergic diseases such as atopic dermatitis, asthma and allergic rhinitis, are considered high-risk groups who are likely to become hypersensitive to respiratory sensitising agents.

Typical Exposures

In bakeries particularly, exposures typically occur during rip and tip exercises where bagged products are ripped and then poured into a hopper. Secondary exposures are common during bag disposal where clouds of dust are created by crushing the empty bags. Dispensary units are also an area whereby exposure could be elevated by the scooping and weighing of powders. Often the flour depositors located on conveyor systems above the passing produce can be a significant cause of airborne dust particulate. Similar processes are observed in food production facilities, especially where spices and other powdered ingredients are mixed and then added into a process. These types of processes aren't uncommon and are often areas of initial concern from a personal exposure perspective.

During clean down and maintenance operations, workers undertaking specific tasks may be at risk of exposure during these exercises. Often workers who undertake the cleaning and maintenance of equipment can disturb particulates which then become airborne, then inhaled. This is often the case during product changeovers and when tending to machine breakdowns. Often maintenance staff are overlooked.

Monitoring and Reviewing People and Processes

It is paramount that a suitable and sufficient COSHH Risk Assessment is undertaken, taking into consideration each process. Control systems should be regularly checked and maintained, and personal exposure monitoring should be undertaken to quantify risk.

Control systems should be applied to reduce exposures to a low as reasonably practicable, in which case some high-risk tasks may require the use of respiratory protective equipment. A suitable and sufficient COSHH Risk Assessment will determine the level of control required, backed up with the data obtained with air monitoring.

A layered approach to controlling these substances would be highly advised. Implementing a number of control systems in line with the Hierarchy of Control, in order to achieve residual risk, will be the most effective method of reducing exposures. Restructuring tasks with the intention of reducing daily exposures can be combined with engineering control systems to achieve a desired level of control. Each workplace scenario is unique and should be studied and continually monitored and adapted as part of your health and safety management system.

Managing and controlling asthmagens in the workplace should be undertaken by qualified and experienced health and safety professionals with the help of a competent occupational hygienist. If you are unsure of whether your implementing appropriate preventative measures, consult with an occupational hygienist.

Lung function testing and regular skin checks should be carried out by a competent occupational health practitioner. Managing workers who are considered as being atopic is essential, as these people are considered to be at high risk of experiencing occupational asthma.

Furthermore, working with asthmagens poses a significant level of risk which should be managed as part of your health and safety management system. Continuous improvement of process efficiencies and control methodologies is paramount in ensuring worker safety.

If you require any further information on how to measure, manage and control exposures to respiratory sensitisers, consult with one of our occupational hygienists today. We will work closely with you to adapt your systems to reduce risk associated with the inhalation of substances hazardous to health. Please feel free to get in touch with us through social media or our website (, by email at or simply give us a call on 01709 931299.

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