It might surprise you to learn that for approximately one in four adults with asthma, research shows the answer is “yes your work is making your asthma worse”. Hundreds of thousands of Western Australians have asthma, and for most people their disease is not so bad that they can’t undertake usual activities like going to work.
However, everyday exposure at work to dusts and chemical can have a significant impact on people’s lungs that can worsen their condition. As work is part of our everyday life and routine, people with asthma may not always realise that their asthma is worse at work and better during leave or weekends.
What is occupational asthma?
Occupational asthma: asthma that is caused by a work exposure
Occupationally aggravated asthma: asthma made worse by exposures at work
What causes occupational asthma?
There are hundreds of causes of work-related asthma: see the table below for some examples. Some of these are general irritants, and some set off a specific, exaggerated response from the immune system. It is important to understand what the issue is for everyone so appropriate action can be taken.
|Type of General Irritants|
|Adverse environment examples||Aggravating exposures|
|Cold dry air in commercial fridges||Animal dander||Flour|
|Dusty environment at mine sites||Wood dusts||Certain paint fumes|
|Outdoor working in winter||Bleach||Solvents|
|High exposure to viruses from other people||Grain dusts||Cement dust|
How to help yourself
Making an early diagnosis and intervening quickly is very important. Untreated occupational asthma leads to a more rapid loss of lung function and potentially severe problems down the road.
Diagnosing occupationally-related asthma involves specialist assessment, such as at the Occupational Lung Disease Clinic at Sir Charles Gardner Hospital. When approaching specialist support you may need to include the following steps :
Managing Occupational Asthma in Australia
In Australia, testing of workers for sensitisation to allergens is recommended in high-risk industries such as spray painters, welders and bakers.
Managing occupational asthma is often difficult, and involves liaison between Respiratory and Occupational Health Physicians, the engagement of employers and government agencies, and often interaction with legal or compensation mechanisms.
People with work-related symptoms may also have other conditions alongside their asthma, like inducible laryngeal obstruction, rhinitis, and dysfunctional breathing pattern disorder. This is another reason for early referral to a specialist centre.
It is important to emphasise that the most effective intervention is to eliminate the agent that is causing asthma. Just using respiratory protection equipment is usually not sufficient to protect someone’s health if it is their daily workplace.
Managing Occupational Asthma
The day to day medical treatment of occupational asthma follows the same guidelines around inhalers and specialist treatment as asthma generally.
Workers will be less likely to report asthma symptoms in the workplace if they are concerned that this will have a negative impact on their income or employment progression. Being employed and in work is important for long-term health and well-being. It is important to create a holistic, personalised management plan to help people navigate the best possible balance between long-term health and employment outcomes.
For more information on occupational asthma, see Understanding Occupational Asthma | Severe Asthma Toolkit
If you are a healthcare practitioner, here are recent practice guidelines in this area: British Thoracic Society Clinical Statement on occupational asthma | Thorax (bmj.com)