Occupational Asthma: who is at risk?


The work environment can, in many cases, be the cause of  health issues and in particular of occupational asthma and other respiratory diseases. Who are the workers at risk and how can they avoid thesevoccupational health problems?

What is occupational asthma?

Occupational or work-related asthma is an inflammatory condition characterized by hyperactivity of the bronchi which causes  bronchoconstriction and/or  bronchospasm. It is a very frequent occupational disease in many industrialized countries – in fact, it affects between 2% and 6% of the adult population. This is a fairly common problem because more than 250 workplace substances have been identified as possible causes of occupational asthma.

It is often erroneously believed that only the exposure to chemical substances leads to respiratory problems, but this is not the case, because, in addition to solvents and other harmful products used in metalworking, painting operations, healthcare laboratories and in agriculture, there are numerous other substances used in various industries that can trigger occupational bronchial asthma, including cereals and flour as well as wood dust.

Asthma from isocynates, ie. resulting from the exposure to paint, is actually very common and can cause many health problems – in fact, it is estimated that over half of about 2000 medical cases are the consequence of exposure to isocyanates and cereals. In some cases, there could also be an individual susceptibility or a predisposition to asthma. In this case, the factors that increase the possibility of an asthma attack in addition to age are: smoking, the presence of viral infections and allergies that affect the respiratory system eg. hayfever or pollen.

In many cases, occupational asthma does not manifest itself at first exposure and it can take years before there is sensitization. For this reason it is important not to underestimate the risks related to the working environment and always provide workers with the personal protective equipment prescribed by current legislation even if they do not present the common asthma symptoms.

How to protect oneself against the risk of developing occupational asthma

When working in environments where you are exposed to the risk of bronchial asthma, it is advisable to use a certified air purifying respirator. These are specific respiratory protective devices for the prevention of diseases of the respiratory system such as bronchial asthma. Nowadays, there are numerous innovative and technologically advanced respiratory devices available which are highly functional and do not reduce worker comfort.

Powered air purifying respirators (PAPR) are equipped with lightweight, rechargeable batteries usually worn at the waist which run for an entire work shift. There is a large number of different respirator types and models to choose from depending on the job to be performed, e.g.  halfmasks which cover the nose and mouth, full face masks to protect the entire face and helmets to protect the head as well as the face and throat. Furthermore, PAPRs are equipped with filters to remove even the smallest particles of dust that could cause sensitization and lead to diseases of the bronchi. These devices are also equipped with exhalation check valves to expel exhaled air and any excess air in order to maintain a slight overpressure inside the face piece. In the case of exposure to eye irritating substances, PAPRs with full face masks or helmets which protect the entire face can be used.