Occupational asthma (OA) is asthma that’s caused or worsened by breathing in chemical fumes, gases, dust or other substances on the job. Typical symptoms of OA are: chest tightness, wheezing, and shortness of breath. OA accounts for approximately ten to twenty-five percent of adult onset asthma. (Dykewicz, MS. Occupational Asthma: Current Concepts in Pathogenesis, Diagnosis, and Management. J Allergy Clin. Immunol. 2009; 123:519.)
Under North Carolina workers’ compensation laws, OA is considered an occupational disease pursuant to North Carolina General Statute §97-53(13). In order to obtain workers’ compensation benefits for OA, an injured worker must show that s/he was at an increased risk of developing OA as a result of his/her employment. Furthermore, the injured worker must show that his or her exposure at work was a significant contributing factor to his/her development of OA.
Treatment with a pulmonologist is essential for the injured worker’s recovery. Frequently the injured worker must avoid working in conditions (i.e. fumes) that will irritate his/her underlying condition. Certain professions are known to have higher likelihood of developing OA. For example, foam insulation installers exposed to diisocyanates, refinery workers exposed to metals (chromium, platinum, nickel), textile workers exposed to dyes, and health care workers exposed to formaldehyde are just a few examples of industries where workers are at an increased risk of developing OA. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety published an online Fact Sheet which lists dozens of occupations where workers are at risk for developing OA.
Clearly, the best way to prevent OA is for workers to avoid using or being exposed to harmful substances. If this is not possible, then employers should make efforts to minimize employees’ exposure through ventilation systems or other methods. If you are concerned about your exposure to a substance at work, your employer should have material data safety sheets (MSDS) on site so that you can review any potential health hazards. As always, prevention and education of employees about proper handling procedures is key.