Breathing Easy at Work

Wheezing; coughing; shortness of breath; and tightness in your chest - all are
symptoms of asthma. And it just may be your job that is making you sick.

It may not be easy to tell if your work is causing the asthma. But if you are
inhaling fumes, gases, dust or other potentially harmful substances while you
work, you may be at risk for occupational asthma. The symptoms may start hours
after you get to work or even after you leave. With occupational asthma, a
previously healthy worker may develop asthma symptoms for the first time, or
someone who is already asthmatic may be aggravated by exposures in the
workplace. Symptoms that worsen through the workweek, improve on the weekend or
while you are on vacation and start again when you return to your job could be
a sign that you have occupational asthma.

What are the causes and who is at risk?

Occupational asthma is the leading cause of work-related lung disease in
developing countries and according to a recent report out of Europe, may
represent one out of four new asthma cases. Over 350 chemicals, mixtures, and
processes found in the workplace have been related to the cause of new onset
asthma as well as the aggravation of the existing condition in workers.

If you smoke you may be at greater risk for developing asthma following a
workplace exposure. Traditionally exposures to flour, wood dust and grain
caused breathing problems. Now there are new sources of workplace asthma,
including latex and various chemicals used in manufacturing products.

Common substances that cause occupational asthma

Substance Workers at risk
Acrylate Adhesive handlers
Amines Shellac and lacquer handlers, beauticians
Anhydrides Users of plastics, epoxy resins
Animal proteins Animal handlers, veterinarians, farmers
Cereal grains Bakers, millers
Chloramine-T Janitors, cleaning staff
Drugs/medicines Pharmaceutical workers, health care professionals
Dyes Textile workers
Enzymes Detergent workers, pharmaceutical workers, bakers
Fluxes Electronic workers
Hospital staff
Gums Carpet makers, pharmaceutical workers
Isocyanates Spray painters, insulation installers, plastics, foam and rubber
industry workers
Latex Health care professionals
Metals Solderers, refiners, printers
Persulfate Hairdressers
Seafood Seafood processing workers
Wood dust Forest workers, carpenters, loggers, cabinetmakers, construction
Farmers, grain workers

Results of the European Community Respiratory Health Survey published in July
2007 showed that nurses, printers, woodworkers, agriculture/forestry, and
cleaning are more likely than the average population to develop work-related
asthma. It is suspected that the high rate of asthma amongst nurses might be
caused by exposure to sensitizing substances, respiratory allergens, and
irritants including sterilizers and disinfectants.

There is no magic number as to how long you have to be exposed to irritants or
allergens before asthma symptoms are triggered. It can take months or even
years to develop occupational asthma, and in acute inhalation events - high
exposure to fumes or dusts may cause asthma immediately or within 24 hours. The
European research team found that the risk of asthma tripled after incidents
such as fires, mixing of cleaning products or chemical spills.

What can we do?

  • Replace hazardous substances with less harmful ones. Where this is not
    possible, exposure should be minimized through engineering controls such as
    ventilation and enclosures of processes.

  • Employers should educate workers on proper handling procedures, avoidance of
    spills and good housekeeping to reduce the risk.

  • Employers should closely monitor their workers' exposure to chemicals and
    agents that could cause asthma and even more so following inhalation accidents,
    as risk of asthma can increase greatly.

  • If you have symptoms of occupational asthma you should see a doctor.
  • Be sure to report your condition to your employer; if one person is showing
    symptoms, others may also be at risk.

  • Reduce and/or eliminate your exposure to the asthma-causing substance. You
    may need to change jobs or move to another location or area in your plant or

  • Be proactive. If left unchecked and untreated, occupational asthma can lead
    to permanent breathing problems.

Further Information

AplusA-online.de - Source: Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety