Maine Asthma Prevention and Control Program - Asthma Information - Work-related Asthma

Work-related asthma can be described as asthma that is attributable to, or is made worse by, environmental exposures in the workplace. Often times, work-related asthma is difficult to diagnose as symptoms may not appear for hours after leaving the work environment. To diagnosis work-related asthma the connection must be confirmed between asthma and the work/workplace. There are over 300 known workplace irritants that are associated with work-related asthma. If you suspect your asthma may be related to your job here are some steps to take and common questions.

Work-related Asthma Q and A

Q. What kinds of jobs or places are workers more likely to get asthma?

A. Food processing plants, hospitals, animal laboratories, beauty shops, auto shops and dry cleaners are all places where people have gotten asthma from exposure at work. Bakers, farmers, grain handlers, artists, painters, and carpenters can also be exposed to asthma triggers.

Q. How can something at my job cause or make my asthma worse?

A. There are over 300 substances in the work place that can cause asthma. These substances can be from chemicals, plant matter, or animals. Even low levels of exposure to some of these substances can cause asthma. Any irritant at a high enough concentration can cause more asthma symptoms if you already have asthma. Even a single high-level exposure to some leaks or spills can cause asthma.

Q. How can I tell if something from my job is related to my asthma?

A. Here are some things to consider first:

  • Has your healthcare provider told you that you have asthma or allergies?
  • Have you talked about what makes your asthma worse?
  • If you had asthma already, has it gotten worse since you have been at your job?
  • If you have asthma, do you have a written asthma management plan?
  • Are there triggers in your home environment, such as pets, carpeting, tobacco smoke, wood smoke, water damage, or strong odors? Symptoms can take several hours to appear after being exposed to triggers.
  • Do you spend time in other places, such as homes of friends or family, where there is smoking or other triggers?

After these first 5 questions have been answered, it is helpful to do the following:

  1. Keep a diary of symptoms for 2 weeks. Record any need for quick relief medicine. Include peak flow scores taken in the morning, at night and if possible, when you have symptoms. Be sure to include symptoms at home, on the weekends, or any time you are not at work.
  2. Note if your breathing problems are worse at work.
  3. Note if your symptoms improve or get better when you are away from work.

Things to look for in your work environment:

  • Does the room you work in have carpet? What condition is it in?
  • Are there cloth covered chairs, old sofas, or any dusty surfaces?
    How is the room cleaned?
  • Do you see water stains or damage on the ceiling, walls, carpet or dark spots around sinks or windowsills?
  • Is there a damp, musty smell? Any other unusual odors?
  • Are there many plants? Is there an “earthy” or barn-like smell?
  • Are there any perfumes or other strong odors or chemicals present?
  • Are pets allowed anywhere in the buildings, even for visiting?
  • Does the air appear stuffy or uncomfortable? Are the air vents blocked or
    covered in any way? Are there drafts?
  • Are vehicles left running outside windows, doors or vents?

Other things to consider:

  • Read the Materials Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for the products you work with at your job. These sheets will give you important information about how to keep yourself safe and what health problems associated with working with these products.
  • If you smoke, work with your healthcare provider to quit smoking

See your healthcare provider. He/she can help:

  • Review your diary with you
  • Order a pulmonary function test, a breathing test that gives a lot of information about your lungs. It can be done before and after work or vacation to see if there are changes.
  • Write a note to support your concerns

Q. What can I do if a substance at work is causing or making my asthma worse?

A. The safest thing to do is to avoid working with or being around what is causing or making your asthma worse. If you feel comfortable, talk with your employer about the following:

  • Share the symptoms diary and point out when your symptoms change
  • See if your employer can switch you to a different job
  • Some chemicals or substances can be switched to something that will not cause symptoms
  • Personal protection equipment, like dust masks or respirators can help, but may not provide enough protection once you have asthma
  • Have a written plan that addresses your concerns, and what you and your employer have agreed to do. Keep a copy of the plan as well

If you feel that your concerns are not being addressed, contact your Human Resource Department. Explain the steps you have taken and ask for help in making your work site safer.