Occupational asthma or work-based asthma is where you get asthma as a direct result of exposure to certain substances at work – you may get new asthma, a flare-up of controlled asthma, or a resurgence of childhood asthma that you thought you had outgrown. Asthma is long-term condition where your airways become sensitised to something in the environment – an allergen or an irritant – and they respond with inflammation. As the lining of the airways causes swelling and more mucus production, airflow is obstructed and you will find it harder to breathe.
It can be difficult to pinpoint that work is the problem, as symptoms may come on gradually, and some time after starting in a new place, while your immune system becomes sensitised. You may notice you have a runny nose or itchy red eyes first – these may be occupational rhinitis and occupational conjunctivitis, and can appear before you get breathing problems to indicate occupational asthma. Keeping a diary can help. You may identify that asthma is worse on the days in work and the following night and better on weekends and holidays. You may have suffered childhood asthma or other atopic conditions, such as eczema, food allergies or hay fever. Untreated asthma has four key symptoms: chest tightness, feeling short of breath, a cough or a wheeze (a high-pitched sound when you breathe out). If you suffer any of these, this suggests asthma.
Any profession where you breathe in dust, fumes, vapours or gases can cause asthma. Bakers can be sensitised to flour and grain dust, wood dust may prompt timber workers or carpenters, animal dander can set off those handling animals, and those working with spray paint may be exposed to isocyanates, solderers and welders can be exposed to colophony, and frontline healthcare workers can be allergic to latex. Exposure to smoking was more of a problem prior to the ban in indoor restaurants and pubs. The Health and Safety Executive website has some top tips for how to minimise exposure to substances for each profession if you have asthma.
Your doctor is your first port of call – they will discuss your symptoms and examine your vital signs and your chest. They may suggest lung function tests, where either they or the practice nurse assesses how well you breathe out, or they may suggest taking a series of peak flow readings with a special device and recording your symptoms, alongside trial of an inhaler. Your employer may have access to an occupational health physician, who will be able to assess you and consider potential allergens or irritants causing your asthma. Alternatively your doctor can refer you to a respiratory physician. While asthma treatment can help symptoms, ultimately the most important thing is to avoid exposure to the trigger – this may be via avoidance of particular areas, procedures, or via personal protective equipment. Avoiding exposure usually helps control your asthma, although you may need to continue treatment for some time afterwards for symptoms to settle.
It is your right to feel safe and protected at work. You are legally protected against discrimination for a health condition. Hopefully you can work with your employment organisation and possibly an occupational health service and trade union, if you have one, to reduce exposure and improve your health. It’s understandable that this should cause great anxiety, and the threat of job loss can make it tempting to mask symptoms so you keep your job, but asthma can be a life-threatening condition. Ultimately, if alterations can’t be made to your job, you may have to find another role either within the same organisation or outside of it.