Asthma is a chronic condition that affects the airways of the lungs, making them narrow and inflamed. While it is the one of the most common long-term diseases in children, adults are not immune to asthma. Exposure of chemicals or irritants in the workplace can lead to adult cases of occupational, or work-related, asthma.
The symptoms of occupational asthma are the same as non-work-related asthma symptoms, such as:
- Chest tightness
- Shortness of breath
Asthma symptoms may come and go, and some workers may exhibit a combination of symptoms. Work-related asthma can happen even when employees utilize personal protective equipment such as respirators or face masks. Sometimes, these breathing problems start at work and can improve or continue after work hours.
Over 300 substances have been identified as known or suspected workplace triggers for asthma. Some workplace irritants that can cause occupational asthma include:
- Chemical dusts and vapors
- Animal substances
- Organic dusts
- Textile dusts
Occupational asthma is concern across a wide range of industries; agriculture, construction, dairy, dentistry, electronics, food production and processing, health care, mining, painting, pharmaceuticals, textiles, tobacco, veterinary medicine and animal handling, water treatment, welding, woodworking, and X-ray processing have all been linked to asthma exposure.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the hierarchy of controls approach to reduce or remove hazards. The preferred approach includes the following:
- Eliminate or substitute hazardous processes or materials. When developing a project, take necessary precautions to prevent potentially harmful exposures and reduce the need for additional controls in the future.
- Install engineering controls to reduce exposure or shield employees. For example, isolate or enclose processes, and install local exhaust ventilation to capture exposures at the source.
- Implement administrative controls such as work practices or policies that reduce or prevent hazardous exposures.
- Train workers on potential workplace hazards, what precautions they should take to protect themselves, and workplace policies for reporting their concerns.
- Establish a no-smoking policy in the workplace. Tobacco smoke is a trigger for some people with asthma.
- Provide yearly flu vaccinations for employees. People with asthma are at a higher risk of developing serious flu complications.
The American Thoracic Society (ATS) revealed that the economic cost of asthma in the United States is approximately $80 billion dollars a year. Based on a 2008-2013 pooled sample, 8.7 million workdays were lost due to asthma. Employers should implement a medical surveillance plan to monitor for asthma through questionnaires, physicals, and routine lung function testing such as spirometry. A surveillance plan can identify workers with asthma at earlier stages of disease when workers are more responsive to treatment.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, May 22). How are work-related asthma exposures identified and prevented? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 24, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/asthma/prevented.html
New Jersey Health. (n.d.). Workplace Health and Safety. Department of Health | Workplace Health and Safety | Industries and Asthma-Causing Agents. Retrieved February 24, 2022, from https://www.nj.gov/health/workplacehealthandsafety/occupational-health-surveillance/work-related-asthma/agents.shtml
Occupational asthma. Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Retrieved February 24, 2022, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/asthma/occupational-asthma
ScienceDaily. (2018, January 12). Asthma costs the US economy more than $80 billion per year. American Thoracic Society Research. Retrieved February 24, 2022, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180112091212.htm