Occupational Asthma affects more than 2 million people and Asthma is the most common work-related lung disease.
*According to the American Lung Association
Common triggers for occupational asthma
- Animal dander and insects
- Cigarette smoke
- Cold air
- Dust mites
- Gasses such as ozone
- Indoor dampness and mold
- Metal dust
- Physical exertion
- Pollen and plants
- Wood smoke
- Irritant chemicals
- Strong fumes
- Dust from wood, grain, flour, or green coffee beans
- Chlorine-based cleaning products
- Vapors from chemicals (e.g., ammonia, isocyanates, and solvents)
Occupational asthma symptoms
Symptoms of occupational asthma are the same as symptoms for non-work-related asthma. They include:
- Chest tightness
- Shortness of breath
Asthma symptoms can come and go, and you may not have all symptoms. You can still experience it when using personal protective equipment such as respirators or face masks. You may even continue to experience symptoms after you leave work and are no longer exposed to asthma triggers.
Other symptoms you may have in response to your work environment include:
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- Eye irritation
What causes occupational asthma?
The cause of occupational asthma varies by industry. It can also be related to allergies. Asthma triggers may start as simple allergies and trigger asthma symptoms after months or years of exposure to the substance. Occupational asthma can also be triggered by chemical fumes or molecules in the air.
Harmful substances that can induce asthma symptoms when encountered in high doses include:
- Hydrochloric acid
- Sulfur dioxide
Occupations that are higher risk
Work-related asthma can be caused in part by how clean the air is. Poor air quality in the workplace can be caused by any work that sends small particles into the air. Small particles like these can get into the lungs when they are taken in. When the air quality at work is bad, it affects more than just our lungs. It can also affect how your mind works, how well you can focus, and how productive you are. Pollen or smog in the air may also be a problem for people who work outside.
The workplace can have many asthma triggers. Here are some examples of jobs and workplace related triggers:
- Bakers and Flour Mill Workers: Exposure to flour dust can trigger occupational asthma.
- Carpenters and Woodworkers: Wood dust is a common trigger for occupational asthma in these professions.
- Healthcare Workers: Latex used in medical gloves and devices, as well as certain cleaning products, can induce asthma symptoms.
- Animal Handlers (e.g., Veterinarians, Zookeepers): Animal dander and insects can trigger asthma symptoms.
- Chemical Industry Workers: Exposure to various chemicals, including ammonia, isocyanates, and solvents, can cause asthma.
- Farmers or Grain Elevator Workers: Dust from grain can trigger asthma symptoms.
- Welders or Metal Workers: Metal dust is a common trigger for occupational asthma in these professions.
- Cleaners: The use of chlorine-based cleaning products can cause asthma symptoms.
- Hairdressers: Exposure to certain hairdressing chemicals can trigger asthma.
- Painters: Exposure to paint fumes can cause asthma symptoms.
The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) go in depth on which occupations are particularly at risk.
Occupational asthma risk factors
Your risk of occupational asthma is closely related to your exposure to asthma triggers. Other conditions that put you at greater risk for developing asthma include:
Famiy history of allergies
Complications of occupational asthma
Permanent lung damage from occupational asthma is possible. You need to take action to ensure:
- The cause of your asthma is identified.
- You avoid exposure to asthma triggers.
- You receive proper treatment for your asthma.
How is occupational asthma diagnosed?
If you develop asthma, you should seek referral to see an allergist. An allergist can diagnose your condition and also determine if it is work-related asthma. You diagnosis may include:
- Review of your medical history
- Review of your job and what triggers you may be exposed.
- Lung function tests/ Pulmonary Function Tests
- Allergy tests
- X-rays or other imaging tests
- Blood tests
What to expect when you meet with a doctor about occupational asthma
When you consult with an AllerVie Health Board-Certified allergist about occupational asthma symptoms, they’ll start by asking you detailed questions about your work environment. After that, they will develop a personalized asthma treatment plan that may also include extra recommendations for work precautions.
Occupational asthma management & prevention
If you believe you are developing occupational asthma you will want to work with your employer to:
- Identify and avoid substances that trigger your breathing problems.
- Make sure necessary protective equipment is available and functioning properly. This can include everything from ventilation to a simple dust mask.
In the US, if you have a high-risk profession, the company has legal responsibilities to help protect the worker from the substances. Reference the occupational safety and health administration’s guidelines and what employers are required to do.