Stirring Up Asthma Problems: What is Baker’s Asthma?
You might have heard that certain jobs or careers predispose (make you more likely) to develop asthma, or if you have asthma, may be more likely to make your symptoms worse. Occupational asthma is also called work-related asthma, where breathing in fumes, dust, or gasses on the job causes asthma symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness to develop.1,2 This makes enough sense—after all, inhaling any sort of fumes or gasses seems risky enough, and dust is one of the most common allergies and asthma triggers.
One type of occupational asthma, though, has a trigger that seems a bit more “innocent” than most—flour.
What is baker's asthma?
Baker’s asthma is a type of asthma that is unique to the occupation of--you guessed it--bakers, as well as grain millers.2 These professions are among a list of “high risk” populations for developing asthma.2 People with pre-existing asthma or allergies, a family history, and smokers are among higher risk for occupational asthma, as are those who work around lung irritants—asthma triggers—regularly.2
Baker’s asthma is caused by breathing in flour and grains (wheat, rye, barley, soy, or buckwheat), additives and enzymes added to bread and baking, and other allergens present in bakeries. These may include eggs or egg powder, sesame/sesame seeds, yeast and nuts—and non-food allergens like dust mites and other molds.3 You’ll probably notice that these are pretty common allergens.
Daily exposure when at work means that asthma symptoms will worsen during the workday, and often clear up on weekends. Generally, any symptoms should signal there’s a problem, but this might be a clue that links the breathing issues to the workplace.3
Preventing baker's asthma
The good news is that there are steps that can be taken to prevent baker’s asthma—both from developing and from being a problem at work.
- Wearing personal protective equipment (such as a mask) can prevent the majority of flour dust or other substances from being inhaled.3
- Low-dust flours should be used, as well as liquid enzymes (not powder) for baking.3
- Ensure good ventilation in the bakery or work area.3
- Use a damp cloth for dusting to catch the dust rather than stir it around; vacuuming may also be better than sweeping.3
- Allergy tests can be done for the substances used in the bakery to determine a person’s sensitivity to it.4
- Work “gently”, in a manner that promotes less dust.5 Don’t throw flour bags, stir slowly or use a low-speed mixer until flour is mixed into wet ingredients, and “dust” items with equipment meant to do so to contain the dust.5
- Environmental health and safety checks should be carried out regularly.1Avoidable substances should be removed from the environment, and machinery should be well-ventilated and cleaned regularly to avoid becoming dusty.
- If you have asthma, advocate for yourself! Inform your employer, supervisor, and coworkers of your asthma, and ensure they know where you keep your inhaler. If you notice things that may be detrimental to your health, speak up.
With proper precautions, it should be possible to manage your baker's or other occupational asthma symptoms so that you can remain in your chosen workplace and profession. However, if asthma continues to be a problem, you may need the support of an occupational health and safety expert to convince your employer to make the necessary changes. Changing jobs may be a “solution”, but it is not your only option!
Prevention is key!
In the case of baker’s asthma, or other types of occupational asthma, preventative steps taken to modify the work environment by decreasing or eliminating asthma triggers, as well as making accommodations for people with asthma, can not only make work healthier for employees diagnosed with asthma, but it can also help to prevent future cases from developing—so, it is a good choice in the long run!
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