Monthly Safety Blast
Produced by the Southwest Center for Agricultural Health, Injury Prevention and Education
Farmers often encounter a myriad of respiratory hazards in their work environments, some of which have may cause work-related asthma and occupational asthma. Concerning the latter, organic matter encountered in such settings can contribute to occupational respiratory diseases. In general, adequate ventilation in work areas where hazards are encountered in high concentration, can be very important to reduce the degree of respiratory illness.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that 11 million workers in a wide range of industries and occupations are exposed to at least one of the numerous agents known to be associated with occupational asthma. Occupational factors are associated with up to 15 percent of disabling asthma cases in the United States. Occupational asthma is caused by breathing in chemical fumes, gases, dust or other substances on the job. Occupational asthma can result from exposure to a substance you’re sensitive to, causing an allergic or immunological response, or to an irritating toxic substance.
According to the Mayo Clinic, occupational asthma can cause chest tightness, wheezing, and shortness of breath. People with allergies or with a family history of allergies are more likely to develop occupational asthma. Avoidance of occupational triggers is an important part of management. Otherwise, treatment for occupational asthma is similar to treatment for other types of asthma and generally includes taking medications to reduce symptoms. If you already have asthma, sometimes treatment can help it from becoming worse in the workplace.
If it’s not correctly diagnosed and you are not protected or able to avoid exposure, occupational asthma can cause permanent lung damage, disability or death.
- Wheezing, sometimes just at night
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness
Other possible accompanying signs and symptoms may include:
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- Eye irritation and tearing
The intensity of your exposure increases your risk of developing occupational asthma. Also, you may have increased risk if:
- You have existing allergies or asthma. Although this can increase your risk, many people who have allergies or asthma do jobs that expose them to lung irritants and never have symptoms.
- Allergies or asthma runs in your family. Your parents may pass down a genetic predisposition to asthma.
- You work around known asthma triggers. Some substances are known to be lung irritants and asthma triggers.
- You smoke. Smoking increases your risk of developing asthma if you are exposed to certain types of irritants.
When to see a doctor
Seek immediate medical treatment if your symptoms worsen, severe asthma attacks can be life-threatening. Signs and symptoms of an asthma attack that needs emergency treatment include:
- Rapid worsening of shortness of breath or wheezing
- No improvement even after using short-acting bronchodilators
- Shortness of breath with minimal activity
The best way to prevent occupational asthma is for workplaces to control the workers’ level of exposure to chemicals and other substances that may be sensitizers or irritants. Such measures can include implementing better control methods to prevent exposures, using less harmful substances and providing personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers.
Although you may rely on medications to relieve symptoms and control inflammation associated with occupational asthma, you can do several things on your own to maintain overall health and lessen the possibility of attacks:
- Quit smoking. In addition to all its other health benefits, being smoke-free may help prevent or lessen symptoms of occupational asthma.
- Get a flu vaccination. This can help prevent illness.
- Avoid nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and other medications that may make symptoms worse.
- Weight loss. For people who are obese, losing weight can help improve symptoms and lung function.
Under guidelines established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), your employer is required to do the following:
- Inform you if you’ll be working with any hazardous chemicals.
- Train you how to safely handle these chemicals.
- Train you how to respond to an emergency, such as a chemical spill.
- Provide protective gear, such as masks & respirators.
- Offer additional training if a new chemical is introduced to your workplace.
Under OSHA guidelines, your employer is required to keep a safety data sheet (SDS) for each hazardous chemical used in your workplace. While at work, be alert for unsafe and unhealthy working conditions and report them to your supervisor.
Take the Occupational Asthma quiz to test your knowledge!
Disclaimer: The facts and information listed above are merely suggestions for your safety, but are in no way a comprehensive and exhaustive list of all actions needed to insure your safety. This article is not an exhaustive description of occupational asthma and you should consult your physician for more in-depth details regarding this disease.
Monthly Blast by our Outreach Health Education Coordinator, Nykole Kafka Vance, MS, CEP, CHES