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What is work-related asthma?

Asthma is a respiratory condition that causes the passageways to the lungs to become inflamed, making it difficult to breathe. When asthma is caused by breathing in hazardous substances on the job, this is called work-related or occupational asthma. Some workplaces are high-risk environments for respiratory hazards. Precautions must be taken to ensure your workplace is limiting the risk of work-related asthma.

If it is not readily diagnosed, occupational asthma can have extreme consequences, including permanent lung damage, disability or even death. Luckily, many cases can be avoided by providing personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers.

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If you or someone you know thinks they may have developed asthma due to hazardous workplace conditions, please see this Fact Sheet published by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Read on for a guide to work-related asthma causes, symptoms, and prevention.

Environmental triggers and symptoms

Work-related asthma can result from multiple environmental triggers. For some, exposure to a substance they are sensitive to can cause an allergic or immunological response. In some cases, asthma develops in response to an irritating toxic substance. Breathing in dust, gases, fumes or vapors can all cause asthma.

Similar to other kinds of asthma, occupational asthma can cause tightness of the chest, coughing or wheezing, or general shortness of breath after exposure. People with a family history of asthma or allergies are more likely to develop these symptoms. Sometimes, these symptoms can disappear when workers leave the job site.

Limiting the risk of work-related asthma

The absolute best way to prevent occupational asthma is for workplaces themselves to ensure that they control the exposure levels of sensitizers or irritants for the workers. For example, exposure can be minimized through ventilation or enclosures of processes. Management may take measures to use less harmful substances, and should provide PPE for workers.

Worker education is also very important. Requiring education on proper handling procedures, avoidance of spills, and thorough cleaning reduce the occurrence of asthma. Quitting or limiting smoking, flu vaccinations, and avoiding nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) can help workers avoid developing respiratory health problems on the job.

For more educational materials on limiting the risk of work-related asthma, please visit the Guide to Prevention published by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Personal protective equipment

PPE is equipment intended to be worn in the workplace, and which protects against safety or health risks. Some common examples of PPE include safety helmets, eye protection, face protection, gloves, and high-visibility clothing.

Masks or respirators are an important part of controlling workplace exposure to substances that may cause work-related asthma. In order to be maximally effective, these protective devices must be carefully chosen, correctly fitted, and well-maintained. It is essential to provide NIOSH-certified respirators if hazardous materials are present in the workplace.

Man comparing respiratory protection.

Which mask is right for my workplace?

Surgical masks

Surgical masks help reduce particles expelled by the wearer into the environment (plus fluid resistance). They can be used during surgery and other medical procedures to help protect patients, or when fluid resistance may be required.

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N95 Respirators

N95 Respirators help reduce particles inhaled by the wearer. They can be used for respiratory protection when the wearer might be exposed to particulate hazards.

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For a more detailed guide to masks and respirators in the workplace, see OSHA’s Fact Sheet detailing the difference between respirators and surgical masks. Other PPE that may be helpful for limiting exposure include face shields and safety goggles.

Workers’ rights

If you work in the United States, your employer has legal obligations to help protect you from hazards in the workplace. Under OSHA guidelines, your employer is responsible for:

Employers are also required to keep a material safety data sheet for each hazardous material used in the workplace. Workers have a legal right to see and copy such documents. If unsafe working conditions are suspected, workers can call OSHA at 800-321-OSHA (800-321-6742) and ask for an on-site inspection.

Help prevent work-related asthma before it becomes a problem in your workplace. Visit MediDent Supplies for PPE and sanitization supplies to keep your workplace safe.