Work-Related Asthma (Occupational Asthma)

In the United States, as many as 15% of asthma cases may be work related.1 More than 300 substances (such as chemicals and irritants) in the workplace can cause or worsen asthma.2

What Is Work-Related Asthma?

Work-related asthma (or occupational asthma) is when your job exposes you to triggers that cause asthma. In developed countries, it is one of the most common lung diseases related to work.

There are two types of work-related asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Occupational asthma: Asthma caused by exposure to a substance at your job
  • Work-exacerbated (or work-aggravated) asthma: Existing asthma made worse by exposure to triggers at work3
     

What Causes Work-Related Asthma?

There are several factors that influence work-related asthma:

  • Sex
  • Geographic location
  • History of allergies
  • Smoking
  • Type and intensity of workplace exposure
     

The workplace can have many asthma triggers. Here are some examples of jobs and related triggers:

Job

Asthma Trigger or Irritant

Manufacturing plant workers

 

Chemicals, volatile organic compounds, chemical dusts, vapors, metals

Cleaning staff

Cleaning chemicals, vapors, dust mites, animal dander

Food service staff, bakers, baristas

Fine dust from flour, ground coffee, cereals, grains, and tea

Fabric industry and textile workers

Dust from cotton and fabrics, volatile organic compounds

Farmers, veterinary staff, kennel staff, animal handlers

Animal dander, bacteria

Health care workers

Latex, cleaning chemicals, perfumes and colognes, respiratory infections

Construction crews, delivery, and transport drivers

Air pollution, smog, emission fumes, saw dust, paint, mold

Farmers, gardens, landscape crews

Pollen, mold, chemicals, pesticides

Beauty (hair and nail salons)

Dyes, chemicals, vapors, adhesives

Pharmaceutical workers

Drugs and enzymes

 

Air quality can play a big role in work-related asthma. Any work that causes small particles to enter the air may also create poor air quality in the workplace. These small airborne particles can get breathed into the lungs. Poor indoor air quality in the workplace affects more than our lungs. It can also affect mental function, ability to focus, and productivity.4 People who work outside may also endure exposure to outdoor air pollution or pollen.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Occupational Asthma?

Work-related asthma symptoms are the same as general asthma symptoms.

Common signs and symptoms of asthma include: 

  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Wheeze (a whistling sound when you breathe)
  • Increased mucus (or thick secretions) from the airways
  • Waking at night due to asthma symptoms
  • A drop in your peak flow meter reading (if you use one)
     

How Do I Know If I Have Work-Related Asthma?

Some people see a pattern of increased airway symptoms while at work or within several hours after leaving work. But the symptoms get better on weekends or during vacations. This can be a sign of work-related asthma.

A doctor can diagnose work-related asthma. They will ask about your medical and family history, do a physical exam, and may have you do lung function tests. They will need to rule out other lung diseases like COPD.

If you think you may have work-related asthma, tell your doctor about:

  • Your job and specific job tasks
  • Exposure to asthma triggers, such as chemicals, cleaners, dust, and irritants
  • If your symptoms improve when you are away from work
  • When symptoms started, especially if after you started the job
     

Use a diary or app to track your symptoms and exposures. Tracking your work history is important. This may help you figure out the cause of your symptoms.

How Can I Control Asthma at Work?

To control your job-related asthma, you may need to work with your doctor and your employer. Together you will need a plan to manage your exposure to triggers and irritants. When your asthma is under control, it can benefit both you and your employer. It can help you be healthier, perform better at your job, and help you miss fewer workdays.

Sometimes, work-related asthma can go away once you are no longer around the substances that trigger your asthma. But if you have constant exposure to some triggers, such as strong chemicals, your lungs may become permanently damaged. Some people develop disabilities due to long-term, untreated work-related asthma. This is one of many reasons why it is important to address your work-related asthma.

Here are some ways you can control your asthma at work:

  1. Get treatment for your asthma. If your doctor diagnoses you with work-related asthma, they will prescribe medicine to help you keep your asthma under control. They will also give you an asthma action plan to tell you what medicine to take according to your symptoms.
  2. Reduce your exposure to asthma triggers. Work with your employer to find ways to remove your asthma triggers from your workspace. Talk with them about getting personal protective equipment (PPE) such as N95 masks. Or depending on your job, you may ask if there is another job you can do that does not expose you to any triggers at all.

    The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) created an Asthma-Friendly Work and School Spaces ChecklistDownload PDF. You can download, print, and share it with your manager. Review the checklist to see if there are ways to improve your workplace for people with asthma.

Download, print, and shareDownload PDF
The cover of AAFA's Asthma-Friendly Work and School Checklist

 

 

  1. Improve indoor air quality. This tip is for your employer. Pass this information along to let them know the impact of indoor air quality on their employees.

To reduce work absences due to asthma, employers can improve air quality in the workplace by taking these 10 steps:

  1. Improve ventilation in indoor spaces. Use appropriate and effective air cleaning and air filtration devices to remove small particles and harmful irritants from the air.
  2. Create a policy for employees that discourages strong scents/odors (no heavy perfume, cologne, essential oils, potpourri, etc.).
  3. Supply proper masks for workers exposed to high levels of air pollution (such as N95 respirators).
  4. Schedule cleaning and dusting to occur when employees with asthma are not around.
  5. Use products that are CERTIFIED asthma & allergy friendly®.
  6. Reduce overall emissions, fuel burning, and exhaust fumes in and around the workplace.
  7. Encourage employees to stop smoking (offer incentives!) and create a no-smoking zone around the workplace.
  8. Reduce excess moisture that may be causing mold growth indoors.
  9. Use proper pest control to reduce cockroach and mouse infestation.
  10. Install air quality sensors to watch your workplace indoor air quality.
     

A man in a hardhat with a list of 10 steps to improve air quality in the workplace for employees with asthma

Improving ventilation and filtration also reduces the spread the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

By improving the air quality of your workplace, it will improve the health of your employees, especially those with asthma.

What Should I Do If I Have Trouble Doing My Job Because of My Asthma?

Asthma, depending on how severe it is, is often considered a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).5

Under the ADA, you can ask for your employer to improve your working conditions as long as your requests are reasonable. This is called a reasonable accommodation. Accommodations are made on an individual basis because the needs of each person vary depending upon the situation.

Employers may not have to accommodate you if your request would cause an “undue hardship.”5 Also they don’t have to make the accommodation if it requires them to make a “fundamental alteration” to a program. But in most cases, you and your employer can work together to find a solution.

If exposure to your asthma triggers at work causes you to have asthma symptoms, first try to work with your employer. Talk with your manager or someone in human resources.

If you have questions about the ADA, you can call the ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383 (TTY). You can also find helpful information at ADA.gov.

What Should I Do If My Employer Will Not Accommodate My Asthma?

If your employer denies your request, you may be able to appeal or work with your human resources department to look into more options.

If you feel you have been treated unfairly, you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Many states also have advocacy organizations that can help you with disability disputes.

If all else fails, you can also file a private lawsuit to get a court order requiring the business to make necessary changes and possibly pay attorney’s fees. If you lost your job, you might also be able to get your job back and get back pay. Keep in mind that the law does not require all employers to accommodate all requests.

 

Medical Review: June 2022 by John James, MD

 

Related Content

Asthma-Friendly Workplace ChecklistDownload PDF

ASTHMA Care for Adults Online Course

 

References
1. Occupational Asthma. (2021). AAAAI.org. https://www.aaaai.org/Tools-for-the-Public/Conditions-Library/Asthma/occupational-asthma

2. Work-Related Asthma. (2019, February 11). www.cdc.gov; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/asthma/default.html

3. Healthcare Professionals: Work-Related Asthma. (2022, May 3). Www.cdc.gov; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/asthma/professionals.html

4. Laurent, J. G. C., MacNaughton, P., Jones, E., Young, A. S., Bliss, M., Flanigan, S., Vallarino, J., Chen, L. J., Cao, X., & Allen, J. G. (2021, September 9). Associations Between Acute Exposures to Pm2.5 and Carbon Dioxide Indoors and Cognitive Function in Office Workers: A Multicountry Longitudinal Prospective Observational Study. IOP Science. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ac1bd8.

5. U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. (n.d.). Sec. 12102. Definition of Disability. Information and Technical Assistance on the Americans with Disabilities Act. https://www.ada.gov/pubs/adastatute08.htm#12102.