Millions of people experience allergies caused by everyday exposures to agents such as dust mites, cat dander, and pollens.  Workers who encounter agents can also develop allergic reactions such as asthma, nasal and sinus allergies, hives, and even severe anaphylactic reactions.  Work-related asthma, which is caused by exposure to an agent in the workplace, is the most common occupational respiratory disorder in developed countries.  An estimated 15% of asthmatic cases reported in the United States are occupation-related.  In Canada, asthma affects over three million citizens.  Many are not aware that certain agents at their work place could lead to hyper-responsiveness of airway or aggravating pre-existing asthmatic symptoms.  Because of that, it is likely that the cases of occupational related asthma are under reported. 

Asthma is a common lung disease that creates narrowing of the air passages, making it difficult to breathe.  It can affect your ability to work, and your overall quality of life.  When asthma is not managed, it can even threaten your life.  If you are exposed to certain workplace chemicals or agents, you may be at risk for developing occupational asthma.  Many people with work-related asthma don’t realize that their symptoms are related to their work because they are the same as those for regular asthma: attacks of difficult breathing, tightness of the chest, coughing, and wheezing.  In work–related asthma, the symptoms are worse on workdays and improve when the person is away from the workplace, such as on the weekend, days off, and vacation.  Also, symptoms may be more severe at the end of the week, as compared to the beginning of the week. 

Risk factors for occupational asthma include frequent exposure to the agents involved, allergies, family history of allergies, or asthma, and smoking.  A good clinical history will help in identifying the possibility of work-related asthma.  An occupational physician could carry out a walk-through survey in the workplace to identify the possible agents that cause asthmatic attack.  Also, a look at the list of chemicals in Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) would give a clue to that. 

There are many agents that can cause occupational asthma.   Here are some examples:

  • Certain chemicals;
  • Metals and metal-working fluids;
  • Dyes, drugs, and enzymes;
  • Grains, flours, plants, and gums;
  • Natural rubber latex;
  • Animal and shellfish proteins;
  • Fungi;
  • Wood dusts, including red cedar.

Factors that can trigger work-aggravated asthma:

  • Vapors, gases, dusts, mists, sprays or fumes from industrial materials and cleaning products;
  • Dust mites or mold/fungal spores;
  • Indoor air pollution resulting from poor ventilation;
  • Outdoor air pollution and smog (for outdoor workers). 

Both employers and employees can help control or prevent work-related asthma.  Employers should:

  • Eliminate the asthma-causing agent from the workplace.
  • If elimination is not possible, substitute a less hazardous agent.
  • Apply administrative controls such as policies, procedures, safe work practices, and job rotation to minimize exposure time of workers.
  • Control the exposure.
  • Install ventilation systems to contain emissions, such as gases or vapors at the source.
  • Provide Personal Protect Equipment, such as breathing respirator masks.  PPE should not be used as the only method of exposure control when exposures are ongoing.
  • Train employees on the proper use, storage and maintenance of PPE, proper handling procedures, avoidance of spills, and safe working and good housekeeping procedures.
  • Monitor the exposure level of hazardous agents in the workplace. 

Employees should:

  • Learn about the hazards in your workplace by speaking to the employer, health and safety or union representative, or an occupational health professional.
  • Be aware of the symptoms of work-related asthma.
  • Use PPE that is provided.
  • Report any problems with equipment, PPE, or ventilation systems to the supervisor.
  • Attend training courses on work-related asthma and occupational health and safety, and participate in all health and safety programs in the workplace. 

If not recognized and treated early enough, work-related asthma is a serious illness that can result in disability and job loss. Fortunately, when potential hazards are recognized, work-related allergies and asthma can often be prevented, or their effects minimized. Employers and employees must work together to prevent work-related asthma, so all can breathe easy at work.

Source: Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety


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