A Guide to Occupational Asthma

Get answers to the following questions: What is occupational asthma? What are its causes and prevention? What is the OSHA standard surrounding it?

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What is Occupational Asthma?

Occupational asthma is a lung disease caused by exposure to substances and other specific chemicals present in the workplace. It can manifest as an allergic reaction or immunological response to an agent you’re particularly sensitive to, or as a natural reaction due to buildup of inhaled substances over a period of time. Asthma that developed due to a profession and asthma that worsened because of work-related activities are both considered as occupational asthma.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, approximately 17% of adult-onset asthma is related to occupation and exposure to allergens and irritants in the workplace. Additionally, based on a report released by Occupational & Environmental Medicine of BMJ Journals—an estimated 1.8 million Americans suffer from asthma that can be traced back to their occupation.

What are the Common Causes of Occupational Asthma?

Numerous substances have already been identified to have triggered workplace asthma or worsened them, and there are still new substances developed everyday that can potentially be allergens and irritants. Some of the common substances include:

  • Weather changes such as the season changing to summer 
  • Chemicals such as plastics, paints, chlorine, acrylates, latex, etc.
  • Drugs and enzymes like flour dust, papain, phenylglycine acid chloride, etc.
  • Metals such as stainless steel fumes, platinum, cobalt, nickel sulfate, etc.
  • Plant substances including flour, cotton, flax, and hemp dust
  • Animal substances including fur, skin, secretions from saliva, feces, urine, and skin from animals, as well as dust from animal enclosures
  • Wood dusts including cedar, redwood, zebrawood, box tree, etc.

Furthermore, occupations at high-risk of work-related asthma include:

  • textile workers
  • healthcare workers
  • food production workers
  • metal workers
  • veterinarians
  • spray painters
  • carpenters
  • bakers
  • car maintenance workers
  • car manufacturers

If you want to learn more about the causes of occupational asthma, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) of the UK has a detailed list of specific substances identified to have caused occupational asthma.

OSHA Standard

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard on occupational asthma highlights that documentation and general industry practices including the use of personal protective equipment and knowledge on toxic and hazardous substances are crucial in maintaining a safe working environment for employees.

Additionally, OSHA 3707 provides a simple guide for patients and doctors in identifying and managing work-related asthma. It also includes other resources that might be helpful in answering common queries about the specific occupational disease.

How to Prevent Occupational Asthma?

There are alot of chemicals and substances present in every workplace that can cause occupational asthma. Allergens and irritants also vary for each individual and there’s no specific solution on how to avoid them altogether. Businesses should, however, do their best to always protect or at least minimize the risks of occupational asthma to employees and other people occupying the facility.

The following are some tips on how businesses can prevent or reduce the chance of occupational asthma in the workplace:

Know your employees

The best defense from developing occupational asthma is to know your employees. Identify if they have existing conditions or allergies that can be triggered by specific substances in the workplace. Minimize their exposure to these chemicals, if possible. Use a simple checklist such as this asthma checklist to monitor and assess their condition and work from there.

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Inform your employees on the presence of possible hazardous materials

Ensure that you let your employees know that they will be working with potential hazardous materials so they can identify if there are materials that they are particularly sensitive to, and also practice preventive measures on their own.

Practice proper facility hygiene

Always maintain cleanliness in your workplace to avoid any unnecessary buildup of dangerous and non-dangerous materials which not only increases the chances of occupational asthma, but can also pose other safety hazards to your employees and other people in the vicinity.

Avoid hazardous substances

If you can, avoid using common allergy-inducing substances in your workplace—especially those identified to be hazardous to health. Another option is to find other alternatives that won’t present as much threat to your employees’ well-being.

Use the right protective gears

If hazardous substances can’t be avoided, ensure that the proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is used and that this is regularly observed and enforced by safety officers. Providing the necessary equipment and ensuring their use can help protect vulnerable employees and reduce their chances of developing work-related asthma.

Perform regular inspections

Conduct regular inspections in the facilities to ensure that all protocols are being followed and practiced across-the-board, especially in areas where hazardous substances are present.

Implement OSHA Guidelines

Businesses must also take note of the possible solutions that OSHA has specified regarding the hazards associated with occupational asthma. These include, but are not limited to:

Protect Your Workers with SafetyCulture (formerly iAuditor)

A streamlined set of control measures is instrumental in reducing the chances of occupational asthma or, at least, in minimizing its effect. Businesses can utilize various ways to help them achieve a safer working environment for their employees with regard to the hazards of work-related asthma.

SafetyCulture is a powerful digital inspection and auditing tool that businesses can use in implementing their control measures to prevent the occurrence of asthma from work-related activities. Aside from enabling you to perform unlimited inspections using asthma-related checklists and other occupational hazard checklists, SafetyCulture also helps you do the following:

  • Conduct other inspections relevant to your business including audits for proper facility hygiene and right protective gears. Our Public Library has thousands of free templates that you can use and download.
  • Create corrective actions, or turn them into issues, and specify the priority level of each one.
  • Share new templates, schedule automatic inspections, and configure user access effortlessly by integrating seamless workflows into your business processes.
  • Attach images/media to your inspections to indicate urgency and promote high-level visibility.
  • Communicate with your team effectively and maintain open and honest interactions using Heads Up.
  • Store inspections, audits, and other documents with cloud-based recordkeeping.
  • Generate inspection reports automatically and share them with your team and other relevant stakeholders.

Learn more about the capabilities of the SafetyCulture digital platform through our Knowledge Base or go ahead and try SafetyCulture for free!

Jaydee Reyes
Article by

Jaydee Reyes

SafetyCulture Content Specialist
Jaydee Reyes is a content writer and researcher for SafetyCulture. Her six-year experience in the field of data research and media monitoring adds expertise and quality to her work. She is also a champion of leveraging technology to promote a culture of safety in workplaces around the world. As a content specialist, she aims to help companies adapt to digital changes through interesting and informational articles.