Occupational Health and the Law: UK vs. US; I ask a question


A UK case report on Occupational Health and Safety, published in August, came to my attention today. Two NHS Occupational Health investigators from UK, Charles Poole of the Northern General Hospital, Sheffield, and M Wong of the Dudley & Walsall NHS Trust Health Center, presented two clinical cases associated with a relatively new occupational industry in that nation: “The separation of garden waste from domestic waste, its collection and processing in industrial composting sites, so as to reduce biodegradable waste going to landfill“.

It is well known that any kind of disturbance created in a given environment, for any reason, can often potentially release harmful substances in air in form of aerosols, or minute particles capable of floating in air. We have seen that with the yeast-like fungal pathogen, Cryptococcus gattii, which was found, via environmental studies, to be present in high concentrations in the soil of Vancouver Island (British Columbia, Canada), and to spread during dry summer weather likely as airborne particles (a.k.a. “propagules”). Release and dispersal of spores of various molds during large-scale air-disturbing activities such as construction, renovation and/or demolition of buildings is a well-studied phenomenon in the fields of Infection Control and Epidemiology; for example, see Krasinski et al., 1985; Streifel et al., 1983. The waste separation, collection and processing appear to be no different. The investigators write:

The process of composting organic matter encourages the production of bacteria, fungi, spores and endotoxins, which may be released to air in bioaerosols. Levels of bacteria and fungi up to 106 colony forming units/m3 in ambient air have been reported in relation to composting…

The problem has not been studied well at all in the population of waste-composting workers, because – as the investigators indicate – reports of illness in these workers are relatively rare. As a result, no safe levels of exposure to such potentially hazardous aerosols have been defined in this context, nor have been the exact conditions conducive to exposure; we don’t know if, and/or how much of, the exposure depends on variables such as composition of the compost, weather conditions, steps and systemic controls engaged during the separation and collection process.

In the existing clinical literature, one of the major culprits implicated in these environment-related diseases is the ubiquitous, spore-producing mold, Aspergillus, in form of its various species, mostly commonly Aspergillus fumigatus which is the etiological agent behind various diseases involving the upper (nose and upper part of the air-tube) and lower (lower part of the air-tube and the lungs) respiratory tract. Untreated or incompletely treated, these diseases can be severe and chronic. One particularly important manifestation is the Allergic Broncho-Pulmonary Aspergillosis (ABPA, in short), which is a complex or multi-component, immunologic, inflammatory response similar to allergies or hypersensitivities – which if not detected and treated early (with antifungals and steroid immune-suppressants) can lead to serious lung damage. ABPA is generally observed in people with certain debilitating conditions, such as cystic fibrosis, or immunosuppression, but rarely in otherwise healthy individuals. In ABPA, apart from classical respiratory symptoms, reduction in lung functions, and lung abnormalities observed under X-ray, certain allergy-related responses are noted in blood (more precisely, serum) – such as:

  • Type I hypersensitivity to bits and pieces of Aspergillus (all recognized as antigens by the immune system), leading to the excessive generation of allergy-associated antibody, called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). By its action, IgE causes release of highly inflammatory mediators, such as histamine, leukotriene, and prostaglandin, from immune cells, which have both immediate and long term deleterious effects.
  • Type III hypersensitivity to Aspergillus antigens, in which small complexes of these antigens with antibody run amok through the body, depositing in blood vessels, kidneys and joints – eventually leading to immune-mediated destruction of tissues at those sites.
  • Eosinophilia, in which eosinophils, a type of white blood cells, markedly increase in number in blood and/or tissues, a common occurrence in allergy and asthma, and in parasitic (worm) infections. Activated eosinophils, a member of immune defence, are capable of causing tissue damage by various mechanisms.

The UK case report describes two late-thirties, early-forties patients, both garden waste collectors by profession, and both diagnosed with ABPA at occupational health clinics; both responded to treatment and were released with the advice not to work with waste and compost. Another member of their team, who though not ill had symptoms of asthma and tested positive for high serum IgE to Aspergillus antigens (indicating exposure) was given the same advice.

The investigators go on to make some recommendations at the end of the report. They write:

Until the results of large epidemiological studies of garden waste collectors and industrial compost workers are known, the few case reports of ABPA […] would indicate that workers with asthma who are sensitized to A. fumigatus or who have cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis or are immunosuppressed should not work with garden waste or compost, unless their exposure to airborne fungi can be controlled. Whether asthmatics who are SPT positive or specific IgE positive to A. fumigatus will go on to develop ABPA is unknown, but they should be made aware of the theoretical risk.

Annual health surveillance by way of a respiratory questionnaire and skin prick testing is also recommended for these workers. Other cases of ABPA or EAA in garden waste and compost workers should be sought and reported, until such time that the results of a national study of UK compost workers are known.

The recommendations gave rise to some germane questions in my mind. These are, of course, valid from a clinical standpoint, and made keeping the health and welfare of the patients in mind. But given that these are related to occupational health, how do these situations play out from the perspective of the employer? How are these situations different in the UK as opposed to in the United States? For example:

  • Can/should the employers (say, a waste management firm) mandate pre-employment testing for Aspergillus-specific IgE and skin prick hypersensitivity testing?
  • Can/should the employers refuse employment to a person who tests positive for IgE and hypersensitivity because of a theoretical risk? Relatedly, can/should such an employee be made aware of this theoretical risk?
  • Should such an employee choose to ignore this theoretical risk and accept the job (or continue on the job after a diagnosis) and become inflicted with ABPA, can/should the employee be able to claim occupational exposure and Worker’s Compensation?
  • Specifically in the US context, can a Health Insurance company demand the results of these surveillance tests for a person engaged in the waste management profession, and if positive, treat this as a pre-existing condition and refuse payment in the event the employee becomes ill and needs treatment?

I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. Perhaps someone conversant with labor and/or occupational health-related laws would care to illuminate me in the comments?

Poole CJ, & Wong M (2013). Allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis in garden waste (compost) collectors–occupational implications. Occupational medicine (Oxford, England) PMID: 23975883

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  1. In the U.S., one would have to consider the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. You would ask if the person has a “disability” as defined in the ADA. If so, the employer is required to make reasonable accommodations if the accommodations do not impose undue hardship on the employer. For example, the employer might be required to provide special protective equipment. That is about the extent of my knowledge.

  2. I’m not up to date with workplace safety law!

    In the UK there tends to be an emphasis on things like did the employer realise here was a risk? were employees trained to understand the risk? was adequate safety equipment / clothing provided and its use enforced? To have a claim against the employer you’d normally have to prove that the employer had been reckless about those things and / or that the risk could have been foreseen by an averagely bright human.

    Large scale composting of this type is relatively recent but if the problem should prove to be common then – provided we still have a Health and Safety Executive with actual staff – then there would be in time be guidelines. We must pray for a better government before the HSE is finally killed off!

    At the recruitment stage it might become necessary to point out the risk and offer a test if one is available but the decision on whether to take that risk would, I think, still rest with the potential employee.

    Do not regard this as professional advice! I’ve an interest in the subject but am way, way out of touch. And probably out of date.

  3. Kausik Datta

    October 15, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    Thank you, Marilyn and Maureen, for your replies. It is good to have your insights.