Is your job making you sick? You're not alone. Some 11 million workers are exposed to some 200 agents associated with occupational asthma, according to Occupational Safety & Health Administration. About 15 percent of "disabling" cases of asthma are related to the workplace. Do you have one of them?
Signs and symptoms
Asthma, whether job-related or not, is characterized by:
Shortness of breath
Additional signs to watch out for:
Itching, burning, watery eyes
When do your symptoms occur? Depending on the irritating agent, work-related asthma symptoms do not only occur at work. Do any of these situations apply to you?
Shortly after arriving at work your symptoms begin; you have no symptoms away from work.
Your symptoms begin a few hours after coming home, then are gone by the next morning.
Your symptoms are light in the beginning of the workweek, but increase as the week progresses.
The longer you work at your present place of employment, the more your symptoms continue.
You have no symptoms when on vacation.
Are you allergic to work?
Asthma caused by the workplace environment can be allergic or non-allergic in nature. An allergic substance is one that causes the body to produce IgE antibodies when exposed to the offending substance. Non-allergic substances can be irritating to the airways, resulting in bronchospasm, without the production of IgE antibodies or the secretion of histamine. A worker may be exposed to an agent that does not cause asthma, but exacerbates a pre-existing asthma.
A diagnosis of occupational asthma has certain implications. Because it is a work-related injury, it could involve compensation. Pre-existing asthma that is worsened by an agent at work would be viewed differently from asthma caused by the work environment.
Doing your homework
It is important to find out what is causing your symptoms so that a proper diagnosis and treatment is available to you. Avoiding the offending substance will be crucial to treatment. If exposure continues for a long time, it is possible to have permanent damage done to the airways. An allergy/asthma specialist is the best type of physician to consult for this problem. If you are having a hard time finding someone in your area, try the physician locator service at (www.aaaai.org), Web site of The American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology.
If you haven't already done so, start keeping track of your symptoms, including any changes in the work environment, such as relocation to another section of the workplace. Record hours and days of the week worked, as well as any vacation time. This will be important information for you to review with your doctor. Also, the doctor may ask to see the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) of the agents you are exposed to in the work environment.
Occupational asthma may take a while to develop, especially if allergic in nature, since it is with repeated exposure that the production of IgE antibodies is stimulated. So, you may have been at your workplace for a while without any symptoms.
Part of diagnosing your asthma may include checking your lung function by using a peak flow meter, both at the doctor's office as well as at work or home, whenever your symptoms occur.
There are primarily three components to occupational asthma:
The substance itself. Fumes and vapors are particularly irritating.
The sensitivity of the person. People with pre-existing asthma and those with other allergies are at higher risk, although anyone can develop occupational asthma.
The amount of exposure. How much of the substance becomes airborne and how easily is it inhaled? For example, if your company requires you to use a filter face mask, the potential harm of the substance is obvious. But the likelihood of inhaling it has been substantially decreased with such a safety precaution.
What kinds of safety measures does the company have? Is there proper ventilation, cleaning and disposal systems provided? Do workers follow the precautions, or is safety "on the books", with little follow-through? Is the safety equipment too cumbersome to use? Does the facemask impair your vision, therefore creating another safety concern?
Some sources of occupational asthma include:
The manufacturing of chemicals or pharmaceuticals
Printing/paper: inks, dyes, cotton fibers
Woodworking: paints, solvents, wood dust, machinery fumes
Animal handlers: research facilities, pet shops, breeders, veterinary office/hospital
Hospital workers: latex allergy can be a skin reaction; inhaled latex protein can set off allergy-based asthma symptoms
Cleaning company workers: both industrial and private homes
Hairdressers: hair chemicals and dyes
Gardening/landscaping: soil and airborne insect particles, molds, wood chip dust