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Preventing and managing occupational asthma: Indoor air quality matters

Lana Bandoim's picture

Individuals who work in industries that produce a lot of particulate byproducts are more susceptible than others to potential problems with their lungs. Indoor air quality can drastically affect workers’ health, productivity and quality of life. Problems can extend beyond the workplace. One common health problem is asthma.


What is occupational asthma?

Asthma is generally defined as chronic inflammation or swelling in the airways of the lungs. When the air passages swell, and the surrounding muscles tighten, this is called an asthma attack. It is unclear what causes most chronic cases of asthma, but it is likely a combination of environmental and genetic factors.

Occupational asthma is a hazard many workers face due to poor air quality. Occupational asthma is a lung disorder caused by substances in the workplace, and this specifically refers to particulates in the air. The condition can be attributed to a variety of triggers including animal dander, wood dust, chemicals and many others. In welding and metalworking operations, pollutants like oil mist, manganese fumes and other toxic airborne elements can also threaten the health of workers.

Symptoms of an asthma attack

Have you or a coworker experienced asthma attacks at work? Symptoms include increased mucus production, wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. You may feel tightness in your chest and tight muscles in your neck. It is also common for sufferers to feel anxious or panic and to breathe rapidly. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms for the first time, then call 911 right away.

Is recovery possible?

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The prognosis for occupational asthma is generally poor for workers who continue to be exposed to triggering substances. Even if medications help manage the symptoms, continuing to work in an environment with poor air quality will prolong the underlying condition.

Proper ventilation in the workplace is the only way to give workers a chance to recover while simultaneously allowing them to keep their jobs. If you are an employee in a facility with poor air, you can report the conditions to your employer. The American Lung Association recommends properly documenting the conditions as well as any attempts to resolve them directly with the employer. If your employer does not cooperate, then contact OSHA about the problems.

OSHA and air quality

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides support and information for employers and workers about indoor air quality. You can refer back to OSHA law regarding employer responsibilities and workers’ rights for clean air. You can also file a complaint if it is necessary.

Although OSHA does not have specific regulations about air quality, two states have indoor air regulations, and they are California and New Jersey. However, OSHA does have standards in place regulating proper ventilation and removal of air contaminants. Ventilation systems must provide air at a comfortable temperature that is also free of pollutants.

Air quality also matters for employers

Employers may have to contend with OSHA penalties for failing to provide their workers with proper workplace conditions. Since poor air quality has such a serious impact on workers’ health, it also causes a significant reduction in productivity and an increase in turnover. It is in everyone’s best interest to make sure that workplace conditions are healthy.