Work-related asthma: know the facts

While the arrival of spring is a welcomed relief by some for its longer days, blossoms and green shoots, for others it signals months of hayfever and asthma-like symptoms. Although it might just be the pollen in the air, it’s important to recognise there can be other causes – such as the under-recognised, work-related asthma.

If you’re experiencing wheezing, coughing or other symptoms it’s a timely reminder to consider whether your work may be impacting them.

A report titled ‘Occupational Lung Diseases in Australia’ published on the Safe Work Australia website, states that approximately 20,000 working age adults (between 16 years—64 years) are diagnosed with asthma each year. It estimates that, of those, up to 3,090 cases may be caused by workplace conditions.

What is work-related asthma?

As its name suggests, work-related asthma is asthma that is either caused or exacerbated by someone’s workplace. It’s brought on by exposure to certain dusts, fumes or vapours that over time can trigger asthma symptoms and have severe health impacts.

Work-related asthma can impact a diverse range of professions, including nurses, cleaners, painters, chefs, food production workers and people who work with animals.

There are up to 400 substances in Australian workplaces that can cause occupational asthma. These include:

  • wood dust
  • flour and grain dust
  • industrial cleaning products
  • latex
  • acrylic paints
  • formaldehyde.

Learn the signs of work-related asthma

If your symptoms improve when you take leave and worsen when you return, it’s an indication that your asthma is workplace-induced. This is known as sensitiser-induced asthma, when long term sensitisation to a substance triggers your symptoms. Sensitiser-induced is the most common type of work-related asthma.

Less common is something known as irritant-induced asthma. This occurs when you are exposed to a significant leak or spill of a harmful substance. In this case, symptoms can occur within hours or days of the incident.

Too few cases diagnosed

Despite the high yearly estimates of work-related asthma, the rate of diagnosis is still very low. Some occupational lung specialists suspect that it is under-diagnosed due to both a lack of awareness, and the extent of testing and investigations required to determine the cause.

If you think you may have work-related asthma it’s important to see your GP and explain your situation. Your doctor will track your symptoms against your work history. They may also recommend allergy testing and review your workplace’s Materials Safety Data Sheet to identify potential triggers.

Identifying work-related asthma early is crucial to understanding your triggers and minimising, or ceasing your exposure. For some people, simply changing the temperature of the workplace environment can reduce the health impacts.

You have a right to speak up and get support

If you have asthma-like symptoms and believe they may have been triggered at work, you have a right to speak up and get support.

Early diagnosis will allow you to effectively manage your symptoms and put a plan in place to stay safe at work. If your symptoms are more severe you may be eligible for compensation. For example, you may have been hospitalised or have taken time away from or left your job or industry.

If you have concerns about long-term lung damage you should speak to your GP and call Maurice Blackburn. We can work together to investigate whether occupational exposure may have caused asthma and identify what entitlements you are eligible for.

Tradesman in dusty workshop

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