Workers and Work-Related Asthma
Asthma is a lung disease. People with asthma sometimes have a hard time breathing. They may have wheezing, chest tightness, and cough.
Asthma that is caused or made worse by chemicals or substances at work is called "work-related asthma." You may get asthma symptoms right after you breathe in a substance. Or, you may feel symptoms hours after leaving work. Sometimes people can work around a substance for many years with no problems. They can later become sensitized, or allergic, to the substance and get new asthma. The earlier a person stops being around the substance, the more the person's asthma can improve.
Some examples of substances that can cause asthma or make it worse include flour, some cleaning chemicals, certain welding fumes, latex, animal dander, epoxies, chlorine, isocyanates, formaldehyde, wood dust, some disinfectants, and metalworking fluids. Very low amounts of these substances can cause asthma in some people, even levels that are below Cal/OSHA worker exposure limits (when they exist).
Rates of asthma have increased in the U.S. and in California in the last ten years. About 15-30% of all new asthma cases among adults in the U.S come from workplace exposures.
1. How can I find out if I have work-related asthma?
If you have been told you have asthma and your symptoms are caused or made worse at work, you may have work-related asthma. Your health care provider can help you find out if your asthma is work-related.
2. How is work-related asthma treated?
The most important way to treat work-related asthma is to stop or limit the exposures that are causing the symptoms. The earlier a person stops being around the substance that is causing breathing problems, the more the person's asthma can improve. Treatment may include anti-inflammatory medicines such as inhaled steroids and bronchodilators.
3. How does the Work-Related Asthma Prevention Program find out that workers have work-related asthma?
All health care providers in California are required to complete a Doctor's First Report of Occupational Injury or Illness (DFR) whenever they see a patient with a suspected work-related health problem. We identify all the DFRs that report work-related asthma. We also receive information from hospitals and workers compensation claims.
4. How can work-related asthma be prevented?
The first step is to learn if substances you work with can cause asthma. The Association of Occupational & Environmental Clinics (AOEC) has a searchable database that lists asthma-causing substances. Substances found in many workplaces can cause new cases of asthma and make someone's asthma worse. Workplaces should not use asthma-causing substances. Instead, they can replace them with safer options whenever possible. If alternatives are not possible, use engineering controls like ventilation, and personal protective equipment like respirators. An effective asthma prevention program will educate and train its workers. It will also create a safer workplace by preventing hazards, and keep track of staff with work-related asthma (medical surveillance).
Fact Sheets and Booklets for Workers