Work-related asthma is the most common occupational respiratory disorder in industrialized countries. It creates a narrowing of the air passages that makes it difficult to breathe. Symptoms are typically worse on working days and improve when away from work.
Early and accurate diagnosis, plus changes in the workplace, can make a difference to the well-being of patients and their co-workers.
The photo of today’s and below infographic will outline information on symptoms, triggers, occupations at risk, and prevention strategies for employers, to help spread awareness of work-related asthma.
What Is Asthma?
Asthma is a chronic (or lifelong) disease that can be serious—even life-threatening. There is no cure for asthma. The good news is that with proper management, you or your loved one with asthma can live a normal, healthy life. The more you can learn about asthma, the better you and your loved ones can manage to live with this disease, making the most of every day and maintaining a high quality of life.
Asthma is a respiratory disease that creates a narrowing of the air passages that makes it difficult to breathe.
- occupational asthma
- Caused by something in the workplace
Enzymes (in detergents or laboratories) and molds
Proteins from animals, plants, foods, insects, fish, and shellfish
Wheat or other flour and enzyme exposures
Isocyanates in spray paints, some glues, foundry molds, polyurethane foam
Western red cedar dust
Something in the workplace aggravates existing asthma
- Dust (construction, grains)
- Ozone (some swimming pools, bottling plants, photocopy machines)
- Ammonia (farming environments such as barns)
- Fumes, vapors, smoke, and gases (metal working fluids, paint fumes, cleaning chemicals)
- Environment (cold, heat, and humidity)
Internationally, up to 15% of adult-onset asthma may be related to the workplace.
How Asthma Affects Your Body
With asthma, swollen airways become extra sensitive to some things that you are exposed to in the environment every day, or asthma “triggers.” When you breathe in a trigger, your airways create extra mucus and swell even more, making it hard to breathe.
Do I Have Severe Asthma?
When your asthma is well-controlled, you experience very few symptoms throughout the day and night and you can perform daily activities without shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing, or wheezing. Some people have asthma that is difficult to treat or does not respond well to inhaled corticosteroids. Depending on the type of asthma that you have, there are different management steps and treatment options that can help.
How Serious Is Asthma?
More than 26 million Americans have asthma, including 6.1 million children. It causes millions of lost school and workdays every year and is the third leading cause of hospitalization among children. There is no cure for asthma, but the good news is that it can be managed and treated, allowing you to live a normal, healthy life.
- Cleaning and janitorial services
- Automobile spray painting
- Insulation and polyurethane work
- Fisheries and fish processing
What employers can do
- Read and be aware of safety data sheet information about respiratory health effects.
- Replace substances with less harmful ones.
- Minimize exposure (ventilation, enclosures).
- Develop administrative controls (such as changing the job or tasks).
- Educate workers on proper handling, avoiding spills, and good housekeeping practices.
- Provide personal protective equipment. This should be the last option.
If there is one worker with asthma symptoms, it may warrant a closer look at the air quality of the workplace and its ventilation controls.
- Tightness of the chest
- Difficulty breathing
Symptoms are usually worse on workdays and improve when away from the workplace.
How to Control Asthma at Work
Unlike at home, you may have less control at work over your exposure to certain irritants and allergens that can be harmful if inhaled and can cause asthma symptoms (coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath).
Here are four steps to prevent asthma symptoms at work.
Step 1: Avoid exposure to allergens or irritants that cause asthma symptoms.
The best way to prevent asthma at work is to minimize the sources of indoor and outdoor air pollution. Some key steps to solving indoor air problems are to identify the sources, remove the sources, and make sure the ventilation system is working properly and the airflow is not blocked.
One of the most important steps you can take to prevent asthma symptoms is to identify what you are being exposed to at home and at work that may be causing your asthma to flare up. Some exposures in the work environment have been associated with causing asthma symptoms.1 You may think of an industrial workplace or “dirty job” as a place where you may be exposed to things that could make your asthma worse. But, exposures to allergens and irritants in indoor office spaces are equally as important to consider when you have asthma. Office buildings can be a threat to lung health if not properly maintained. Below are ways to avoid exposure to allergens or irritants while at work:
Identify your asthma triggers at work. Learn ways to limit your exposure to things that make your asthma worse or avoid them together. Asthma triggers found in the workplace include:
- airborne dust
- gases, fumes, and vapors
- secondhand smoke
- cleaning chemicals and scented personal care products
- pests (dust mites, cockroaches, mice)
Outdoor workers who have asthma also face risks of breathing problems from exposure to outdoor air pollution, especially for jobs on the road and near roadways. Common triggers for outdoor workers include:
- Outdoor air (ozone, particle pollution, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides)
- Vehicle exhaust
Eliminate sources of unhealthy air. Find out how building owners, managers, and employees can work together to improve indoor air quality where you work. ( learn how to have indoor-air-quality/)
Use safer cleaning products whenever possible. Start with soap and water, or vinegar and water. Those traditional cleaning products work well. However, if you find that you need a more powerful cleaning product for the job, such as a disinfectant to kill microorganisms that cause infection, many cleaning chemicals now have product alternatives that are more environmentally friendly. A good place to start is on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This program helps consumers, businesses, and institutional buyers identify cleaning and other products that perform well, are cost-effective, and are safer for the environment. However, being safer for the environment does not always translate to being safe for your health. Be sure to review Material Safety Data Sheets on cleaning chemicals to choose safer products. A list of cleaners that meet EPA standards can be found: by searching for Safer Choice Products and You can use EPA’s Safer Choices interactive graphic to find Safer Choice products for your community. Other independent programs certify products as well, such as Green Seal and Eco Logo. The American Lung Association does not certify cleaning products.
Use safer chemicals and machinery. Within some industries, there is the possibility to replace harmful products with safer ones. Talk to your employer to see what is available. Similarly, there are often other machines that release less dust, mists, or other air pollutants. By encouraging your employer to switch the materials and equipment used in your workplace that may be irritating to your airway, you can greatly improve the air quality in your workplace and its effect on your health.
Respiratory ProtectionLearn how to breathe safely and how to use the-proper respiratory protection
Avoid tobacco smoke. Secondhand smoke can cause asthma symptoms. Encourage your employer to establish a tobacco-free policy. And, if you smoke, the best way to protect your lungs is to make a plan to quit. The American Lung Association can help.
Step 2: Get help from your healthcare provider for your breathing problems.
Make sure to see your healthcare provider as soon as you start having symptoms. Asthma can be controlled but requires two things – limiting or avoiding exposure to asthma triggers and using asthma medicines as prescribed by your doctor. An asthma action plan can help!
It is important to keep track of your symptoms. It can be a challenge to remember everything you need to share with your healthcare provider at your upcoming visit. Here are some tools that will help you give your doctor all the information he or she needs to properly link your workplace to your asthma symptoms.
- Keep a log or diary of your symptoms and bring it to your physician.
- Make sure to tell your provider about new symptoms and where you work. Download the Getting Ready for Your Office Visit form and complete the sections to improve the time that you have together.
Step 3: Report respiratory symptoms immediately as well as breakdowns in ventilation and other protective equipment to your employer. Your co-workers also may be at risk.
Unhealthy air? Breathing problems? Follow these 3 important steps:
- Let your supervisor and building management know there may be a problem. Follow the usual and proper steps to alert them, as you may need to document the steps you took later.
- Tell your healthcare provider about your symptoms. Report the symptoms to your company’s health or safety officer. The state or local health department may also need to be informed. Ask the health or safety officer if you should do that yourself.
- Work with management as they investigate the problem. The process may take longer than anyone wants because the underlying problems may be difficult to identify.
Your employer is legally responsible for informing you of general and specific hazards connected with your job. Your employer is also responsible for providing you with a safe and healthful workplace. You can help by being alert for unsafe and unhealthful working conditions and reporting any problems.
- Review the American Lung Association’s Signs of Potential Problems for more information on recognizing hazards and investigating the problem.
- Request a Health Hazard Evaluation. If you suspect a health hazard at your workplace, employees, employee representatives, or employers can request an evaluation of possible health hazards associated with a job or workplace. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Occupational Safety & Health can provide assistance and information by phone, in writing, or may visit the workplace to assess exposure and employee health.
Step 4: Take care of your asthma. See your healthcare provider regularly, take medications as directed, and avoid environmental exposures that worsen your asthma.
Asthma is a lung disease that makes breathing difficult for millions of Americans, both young and old. There is no cure for asthma, but the good news is it can be managed and treated so you can live a normal, healthy life. The American Lung Association has a number of resources to help.
- Learn more about asthma. The better you and your loved ones can manage to live with this disease, making the most of every day, and maintaining the quality of life that is important to you.
- Participate in Asthma Basics. Asthma Basics is a 50-minute online learning module targeted at adults and caregivers interested in learning more about asthma. Participants that complete the course will be able to recognize and manage asthma triggers, understand the value of an asthma action plan, and recognize and respond to a breathing emergency. This course is quick and easy and includes videos and downloadable documents.
- Six action steps to keep your asthma under control. Once you have an understanding of what it means to have asthma, it’s time to find out what you can do to manage the disease.
- Questions about your lung health? Talk to a lung health specialist at the Lung HelpLine. 1-800-586-4872 (1-800-LUNGUSA).
Employers are responsible for providing safe work conditions, including healthy air. Although many laws have been passed to protect workers, problems with air quality on the job are often overlooked. Review the American Lung Association’s Preventing Problems page to find out what workers and employers can do to prevent dirty air from polluting the workplace and endangering their health.
If you are experiencing a breathing problem at work, encourage your employer to take steps to create a lung-friendly workplace
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