England's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says flour and bread mixes are the top cause of occupational asthma.
Yet many smaller bakeries across the country remain ignorant of HSE regulations and guidance on limiting the amount of 'dust' workers breathe in, according to Ronnie Draper, health and safety director at the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU).
Draper, commenting two weeks after a medical study claimed one worker in ten was at risk of developing asthma from powdered baking mixes in supermarkets' in-store bakeries, said he "didn't doubt that some bakeries also wilfully break the rules" laid out in the HSE's Control of Substances Hazardous to Health.
The 2002 version of these states that the average concentration of inhalable dust must not exceed 10mg per cubic metre, and also requires employers to fill out risk assessments as well as provide health check-ups for workers.
The HSE itself released a survey of 55 bakeries last year which revealed only 26 per cent of those with five or more employees had completed a written risk assessment of dust hazards and only 27 per cent of bakeries were aware of the exposure limits relating to flour dust.
Despite this, the survey claimed 80 per cent of the bakeries confirmed they knew that exposure to flour dust could cause breathing problems and increased sensitivity leading to nose and eye irritation.
Now, the HSE plans to increase its presence across the baking industry and is hoping to appoint two new workers' safety advisors specifically to visit small bakeries. "This work could lead to further targeted enforcement - HSE sees no need for workers to suffer this disease which can ruin a worker's life, in the 21st century," it said.
The BFAWU has been working with the HSE in its bid for the new safety advisors, who are expected to begin working in the Greater London area. Yet Draper said that in order to tackle the problem fully, the government must double the HSE's resources, which he claimed were being systematically reduced in real terms year-on-year.
In 2003, the government said it would give the HSE an extra £10 million over the next three years, but unions have argued that in real inflationary terms this means the executive will have less money in 2005/6 than it had in 2003/4.
"There needs to be more enforcement from local authorities and the government has to understand the current shortfall in funding. If not, it is a sad fact that the people baking are the ones who will lose out," said Draper.
The HSE said that between 2001 and May 2004 its inspectors served 73 improvement notices to bakeries on matters relating to flour dust.
Occupational Asthma has received more recognition as a medical condition in recent years. A series of studies have linked flour and widely used baking additives such as the alpha-amylase enzyme to asthma-related symptoms in bakery workers, including chest tightness and wheezing.
The HSE has published various advice leaflets for bakeries on how to control dust exposure. This includes a training video entitled Breathe Easy, produced jointly with the Federation of Bakers and BFAWU among others, and a book called 'Bakers' Dozen'.
The executive has also released its 'top ten tips' for handling dust, including using vacuums instead of brushes to clean up dust and avoiding raising dust by starting mixers on slow speed until wet and dry ingredients are combined. For more guidelines and advice see HSE.