work-related asthma

Don’t Make Your Workers Gasp for Air—Avoid Work-Related Asthma


  • Work-related asthma impacts nearly 3 million U.S. workers.
  • Many substances can cause or aggravate asthma on the job.
  • Replacing asthma-causing substances with safer alternatives is the best way to eliminate the risk of employees developing the disease.

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), up to 2.7 million U.S. workers may have asthma that is either caused or aggravated by environmental conditions within the workplace. There are over 300 workplace substances that cause occupational asthma, from metals to animal-based substances.

As an employer, you play an essential role in addressing work-related asthma and helping affected employees.

What is asthma and what are its dangers?

Asthma is a disease of the lungs. Airways become constricted through inflammation, which causes difficulty breathing. Symptoms may include shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness. Asthma can be triggered by a wide range of environmental substances, including chemicals used on the job.

Symptoms of asthma may include shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness.

Asthma, especially if uncontrolled, may cause long-term lung damage. The employee could lose work days, require disability, or even die. Asthma is much more serious than allergies and should be treated with urgency.

How is asthma diagnosed?

Work-related asthma may be diagnosed in adults either as new-onset asthma or aggravated asthma in a previously well-controlled sufferer. As with all asthma diagnoses, multiple criteria are considered.

A detailed medical history is obtained documenting symptoms, allergies, and timing of attacks.
Pulmonary function testing (breathing tests) are performed to measure flow rates of air.
To determine work-related asthma, data is gathered about the history of occupational exposure.

Work-related asthma can develop over any length of time and can occur due to changes in processes, job activities, and exposure. Once developed, symptoms of work-related asthma may not subside even when the triggering substance is removed. Even if the workplace is equipped with protective equipment and ventilation devices, an employee can still develop asthma.

Types and Causes of Work-Related Asthma
Work-related asthma comes in three types:

  • Work-Aggravated — an employee’s pre-existing asthma is triggered by a substance in the work environment that makes symptoms worse.
  • New-Onset Asthma due to high-level exposure — an employee who never had asthma develops it from exposure to massive leak or spill of a substance at work.
  • New-Onset Asthma from working with a substance known to cause asthma — an employee who did not have asthma in the past develops it gradually after working with particular substances that can cause asthma. This may take years.

There are two primary stages of asthma: hyper-reactive response in which the individual’s airway muscles tighten in response to an irritant, and inflammatory response, in which the airways are narrowed due to an immune system reaction.

Isocyanates are notorious for causing asthma in workers not properly trained in their use. Click To Tweet

Asthma is often caused by specific types of substances, such as animal dander or fur, plants and plant material, and chemicals. Insects parts, egg proteins, dust from flour or coffee grinding, and disinfectants may all cause lung inflammation. Isocyanates—used in the making of foams, fibers, paints, and elastomers—are notorious for causing asthma if a worker is not properly trained in their use.

The Employer’s Role in Coping with Work-Related Asthma
If an employee has an asthma attack while working for you, your first response should be to provide emergency medical assistance. Once the employee is stabilized, analyze the work site to determine what substances could be at fault and how future exposure can be limited. At a minimum, follow federal safety guidelines.

  • Provide training as well as protective breathing gear if needed.
  • Improve ventilation.
  • Keep the environment clean.
  • Replace the offending substance with a safer alternative (the best recourse).

Your goal is to reduce or eliminate asthma-causing substances and triggers from the work environment. Help other employees avoid exposure to irritants and chemicals that cause airway inflammation and muscular responses that keep them from breathing properly.

For those who already have asthma, whether work-related or not, providing a workplace free of toxins, chemicals, and other airway irritants will go a long way in decreasing illness and its progression. Create a surveillance process to identify and monitor worker exposure.

More than 11 million workers are exposed to at least one substance provoking an asthmatic response. Replacing asthma-causing substances is the best way to prevent further lung damage or new cases. Identify unhealthy conditions, protect the air, and educate employees on ways to avoid developing or triggering asthma.

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