Is work leaving you breathless? How to prevent work-related asthma

He never smoked, was in good physical shape, and had been healthy for most of his life. So when the coughing and wheezing began, and then worsened, Michel knew something was very wrong. His doctor questioned him about the years he had spent at a workplace without proper ventilation — breathing in harmful chemicals.
After further investigation, many tests and examinations, Michel's doctor diagnosed him with occupational asthma.

Asthma is a common lung disease that creates narrowing of the air passages making it difficult to breathe. It can affect your overall quality of life and your ability to work, and when asthma is not managed, it can even threaten your life. If you are exposed to certain workplace chemicals or agents, you may be at risk for developing occupational asthma.

Often people with work-related asthma do not realize that their symptoms are related to their work because they are the same as those for regular asthma: attacks of difficult breathing, tightness of the chest, coughing, and wheezing. However, in work-related asthma, the symptoms are usually worse on working days, and improve when the person is away from the workplace — on the weekend, days off and during vacations.

There are two types of work-related asthma:
•occupational asthma or respiratory sensitization, which is caused by exposure to an agent in the workplace
•work-aggravated asthma where factors at work worsen the condition of someone who already has asthma.

Agents that can cause occupational asthma?
There are many agents used in workplaces that can cause asthma in people working with them. Examples include certain:
•chemicals including isocyanates
•metals and metal-working fluids
•dyes, drugs and enzymes
•grains, flours, plants and gums
•animal and shellfish proteins
•wood dusts including red cedar.

Factors that can trigger work-aggravated asthma
?Workplace respiratory irritants and certain workplace factors can trigger work-aggravated asthma. These could include:
•vapours, gases, dusts, mists, sprays or fumes from industrial materials and cleaning products
•dust mites or mould/fungal spores
•indoor air pollution resulting from poor ventilation
•outdoor air pollution and smog (for outdoor workers)

Eliminating or reducing exposure to any agents that are known to cause it can prevent work-related asthma. Both employers and employees can help to prevent it.

What employers can do
•Eliminate the asthma-causing/aggravating agent from the workplace.
•Substitute a less hazardous agent if elimination is not possible.
•Apply administrative controls such as policies, procedures, safe work practices and job rotation to minimize exposure time of workers.
•Control the exposure. Close off the work processes that release the agent into the air, or install ventilation systems to contain emissions, such as gases or vapours, at the source.
•Provide personal protective equipment (PPE) such as respirators as the last line of defence. PPE should not be used as the only method of exposure control when exposures are ongoing.
•Train employees on the proper use, storage and maintenance of PPE, proper handling procedures, avoidance of spills, and safe working and good housekeeping procedures.
•Monitor the exposure level of hazardous agents in the workplace to make sure that workers are not exposed to levels greater than recommended in regulations, standards, and guidelines.

What employees can do
•Learn about the hazards in your workplace by speaking to your employer, health and safety or union representative, or an occupational health professional.
•Attend training courses on work-related asthma and occupational health and safety.
•Be aware of the symptoms of work-related asthma.
•Follow safe work practices, policies, and procedures provided by your employer.
•Use the PPE provided.
•Report any problems with equipment, PPE, or ventilation systems to your supervisor.
•Participate in all health and safety programs in the workplace.

If you experience asthma-like symptoms, go to your doctor. If your doctor, or other health-care professional, suspects that you may have work-related asthma, tell your supervisor, union representative, and joint health and safety committee immediately.

Work-related asthma is a serious illness that, if not recognized and treated early enough, and exposure is not reduced, can result in disability and job loss. It is important for employers and employees to work together to prevent work-related asthma so all may breathe easy at work.

For more information, read the OSH Answers Fact Sheet on Occupational Asthma from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) for a detailed chart of causal agents and related occupations at risk.