Occupational asthma

  1. Asthma affects over 16 million adults in the United States. It can be a life-threatening condition if left untreated.
  2. Symptoms include wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.
  3. Inhaled medicines are commonly used to prevent and relieve symptoms.
  4. Environmental triggers such as grass pollen can provoke an asthma attack.
  5. Certain workplace dusts and chemicals can sensitize workers, leading to the onset of occupational asthma.
  6. Employers should identify any potential sensitizers and either remove them from the workplace or provide protective equipment for employees.
  7. Employees working with potential sensitizers can have their respiratory function monitored easily with simple tests such as PEFR and FEV1.

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Asthma Overview

Over 16 million American adults suffer from asthma. Its symptoms include coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. There is no cure for asthma. If left untreated, the condition can prove fatal. However, there are a number of treatments available that can help to control the disease. These treatments fall into two categories: “reliever” medicines that reduce asthma symptoms (for example, albuterol) and “preventer” medicines that help keep the overall condition under control (for example, inhaled corticosteroids).

During respiration, air is drawn into the lungs via a series of tubes that divide into smaller branches called bronchioles. In asthmatic patients, muscles that surround the bronchioles can constrict inappropriately, causing a narrowing of the airway. This problem is worsened by inflammation that occurs within the bronchioles themselves. Reliever medicines relax the muscles surrounding the airways while preventer medicines suppress inflammation within bronchioles.

Asthma sufferers may find that certain “triggers” such as grass and tree pollen can provoke an attack. Workplace factors can provoke occupational asthma by sensitizing the respiratory tissues of exposed workers. Isocyanates, soldering fumes and dust from grain, wood and latex rubber are all common sensitizers.

It is important for employers to identify any potential sensitizers in the workplace. Potential hazards should be kept under periodic review, especially when workplace processes change. Employers should take steps to eliminate sensitizers where possible or provide workers with protective equipment.

OSHA Regulations

The OSHA website has excellent information relating to occupational asthma, its common causes and preventive measures. Employers should consider these materials as required reading. Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act requires employers to “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees”.

Asthma sufferers are often monitored via a method known as spirometry, in which air flow from the lungs is measured when a person blows into a simple testing device. Common measurements include Peak Expiratory Flow Rate (PEFR) and Forced Expiratory Volume in One Second (FEV1). Regular measurements can indicate whether an asthma sufferer’s condition is stable, deteriorating or improving. In a workplace with known sensitizing agents, such measurements may be routinely adopted in order to monitor possible development of occupational asthma.

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Essential links

OSHA Safety and Health Topics: Occupational Asthma
U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration

American Lung Association – home page
American Lung Association home page

US EPA: Asthma
US Environmental Protection Agency pages on asthma

Business Owner Briefing
OSHA Small Entity Compliance Guide for the revised respiratory protection standard

Medical Director Review
Standards of care for occupational asthma – Fishwick et al. 63 (3): 240 – Thorax

This is business-to-business information intended for EHS (environmental health and safety) professionals and not intended for the final consumer. Companies should check the local regulatory status of any claim according to their individual needs, requirements and intended use.

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