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What You Need to Know about Occupational Asthma

If you suffer from a seasonal allergy, there’s usually a point when the trigger that is making you miserable – pollen or ragweed, for example – subsides for another year.

LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni

But when the source of your coughing wheezing is found on the job, the exposure is more likely to be ongoing. This can lead to occupational asthma. Occupational asthma is the most common work-related lung disease in the United States and Canada.

“Occupational asthma can affect an employee’s overall well-being and ability to work,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “When you have a flare up, it’s like trying to breathe through a straw. Safety measures must be implemented to protect Laborers and others from exposures in the workplace that can lead to this illness.”

Occupational Asthma

Laborers who work in construction can be exposed to fumes, gases, vapors and dust from a variety of sources. If these workers are among the 28 million Americans and Canadians who come to their jobs with preexisting asthma, these exposures can aggravate the condition. If they’ve never had asthma, these exposures can cause them to develop it. Approximately 1.9 million cases of adult asthma are work-related.

For example, isocyanates, which are used in spray polyurethane foam (SPF) insulation, are a leading cause of work-related asthma. However, they are just one of more than 350 substances commonly found in the workplace that are known asthma triggers (or asthmagens). These substances, which include chromium, wood dusts, rosin-based solder, epoxies and certain adhesives, affect workers when they are inhaled (or absorbed through the skin).

Sometimes all it takes is a single acute exposure to trigger an asthma attack. In other cases, it can be years before asthma develops. Symptoms of asthma include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing

Regardless of the source, once the lungs are sensitized, exposures to even very low amounts of the substance can trigger an asthma attack.

Reduce Occupational Asthma

Employers can minimize known worksite asthma triggers. For example, when possible, they should use materials that do not contain known asthmagens. Local exhaust ventilation, dust suppression using wet methods and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as respirators can help protect workers from exposures that cannot be avoided completely. When possible, employers should also provide a nearby area free from exposures (and upwind of ongoing exposures) where workers can go if they are experiencing the symptoms of asthma.

Laborers experiencing asthma symptoms should alert their employer and discuss solutions. For example, it might be possible to be assigned a different task or moved to an area farther away from the exposure. They should also notify their health care provider of their symptoms.

Because an asthma attack can occur without warning and can be fatal, it is also important that Laborers with this condition have their prescribed asthma medications with them at all times.

The LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division can provide guidance specific to your worksite to reduce exposures that cause occupational asthma. This includes site visits and a review of an employer’s safety and health program. The Fund’s new online Site Safety and Health Program (SSHP) allows signatory contractors to create individual safety and health programs customized for their specific needs. For more information, call 202-628-5465.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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