Understanding Occupational Asthma: Are You at Risk?

The most common type of asthma is allergic asthma, where symptoms are triggered by exposure to substances called allergens. This can include things such as: dust mites, pollen, pet dander and mold. However, at least 15% of people who have asthma may have some occupational factors at play.

In some of these people, exposure to certain substances on the job is the sole reason for their asthma symptoms. In others, allergic asthma may still be the root of their problems, but job exposure worsens their symptoms.

Asthma symptoms include:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath

Because of this, it may be hard to know if your asthma is caused by the work you do, or if it us just worsened by it. Answering these questions from the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology may help:

  • Did your asthma start when you changed jobs?
  • Does your asthma improve when you are away from your job?
  • Do chemicals and other conditions at your workplace make it difficult to breathe?

Who Is at Risk of Occupational Asthma?

Occupational asthma, sometimes called work-related asthma, is when asthma symptoms are triggered by inhaling fumes, gases, dusts or other potentially harmful substances while at work.  You may find that your symptoms are worse during your work shifts and that they get better when you're at home.

The risk of developing occupational asthma is greater if:

  • You have a family history of allergies or asthma
  • You smoke

More than 250 substances are known or believed to cause or exacerbate work-related asthma. These substances include:

  • Chemicals used in manufacturing
  • Paints
  • Cleaning products
  • Dusts from wood, grain, and flour
  • Latex gloves
  • Certain molds
  • Animals and insects

These occupations have been considered to be the most risky in terms of work-related asthma:

  • Bakers
  • Detergent manufacturers
  • Drug manufacturers
  • Farmers
  • Grain elevator workers
  • Laboratory workers (especially those working with laboratory animals)
  • Metal workers
  • Millers
  • Plastics workers
  • Woodworkers

Risk May Also Depend on Other Factors

According to a Morbidity and Mortality report from the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of people affected by work-related asthma may likely be even higher. It may also include even more occupations and appears to vary by state:

"Data from the 2006–2007 adult Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) Asthma Call-back Survey (ACBS), an in-depth asthma survey conducted with respondents who report an asthma diagnosis, from 33 states indicated that up to 48% of adult current asthma might be related to work and could therefore potentially be prevented."

A sample of 208,788 adults in 21 states was used to represent an estimated 125 million persons who did complete the industry and occupation module. The proportion of workers with current asthma differed significantly by age, sex, race/ethnicity, household income, and state. For example:

  • Work-related asthma was 5% in Mississippi and 10% in Michigan
  • Occupational asthma numbers were highest in the health care and social assistance industry (10.7%) and in health care support occupations (12.4%)
  • Asthma related to work was highest among workers in the information industry (18.0%) in Massachusetts and in health care support occupations (21.5%) in Michigan
  • Among the five industries with the highest current asthma numbers, health care and social assistance was a factor in 20 of the 21 states, retail trade in 16 states, and education in 14 states
  • Among the five occupations with the highest current asthma numbers, office and administrative support was a factor in 16 of the 21 states, health care practitioners and technical in 15 states, and sales and related in 13 states

There are some noted limitations in this study, so further research may be required. In addition, people reporting apparent symptoms of asthma should work closely with their physician to identify the causes, triggers and medical history before jumping to conclusions and quitting their jobs.

Dealing With the Risk of Work-Related Asthma

Just because you work in an industry or occupation that may present some risk to your airways doesn't mean that asthma is a foregone conclusion. There are actions you can take to control occupational asthma risk. Here are a few action steps from the National Institutes of Health:

  1. Prevent asthma by taking steps to reduce or eliminate environmental allergens and irritants.
  2. Detect work-related asthma early, even before symptoms appear, by knowing what to look for and assessing the risks in your environment.
  3. If you already have asthma, avoid worsening your symptoms by taking steps to prevent or limit exposure to harmful substances.

Employers and employees should work together to prevent/limit the risk for work-related asthma. You can advocate with your employer for these measures:

  • Compliance with federal health and safety guidelines from OSHA
  • Elimination or substitution or known allergens and irritants in the workplace
  • Availability of personal respiratory protective equipment, as a secondary measure
  • Institution of surveillance programs to identify affected workers early, including symptom monitoring, spirometry and skin testing
  • Regular training of workers on potential workplace hazards
  • Programs to help eliminate smoking in and around the workplace

As a worker, you have the responsibility to report any health problems, especially breathing problems promptly, to both your employer and your doctor. This will enable you to treat any possible disease before it becomes permanent and disabling. Adhere to safety precautions and use any safety equipment to protect yourself.

If you are diagnosed with asthma, follow your Asthma Action Plan, take your medicine and if you smoke, get help to quit ASAP.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Asthma.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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