Work-related asthma is the most common occupational lung disease in the U.S., according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and the American Lung Association (ALA). Employees in all types of industries from health care to agriculture are at risk for developing occupational asthma.
More than 300 substances can cause or aggravate asthma, including dust, smoke, fumes, mold, and many other types of substances found in work environments. However, some workers face higher risks than others for developing occupational asthma, according to the National Institutes of Health. These higher-risk occupations include but are not limited to the following:
- Detergent manufacturing plant workers
- Drug manufacturing plant workers
- Carpenters and woodworkers
- Construction workers
- Grain elevator workers
- Health care workers
- Lab workers
- Metal workers
- Plastics workers
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the highest number of industry-related asthma fatalities have historically occurred among male construction workers and females in the health care industry. Interestingly, there was a significant decline in asthma deaths among health care workers from 1999 to 2016. This decrease has been attributed to the replacement of powdered latex gloves with non-irritating alternatives.
What Triggers Occupational Asthma?
Common triggers of occupational asthma in the workplace include the following:
- Ammonia and other cleaning products
- Animal hair
- Chemical fumes
- Wheat, flour, grain, nuts, spices, and other foods
- Wood and sawdust
A class of chemicals, called isocyanates, comprise one of the most common causes of occupational asthma. These organic compounds are used to manufacture paints, varnishes, adhesives, foams, fibers, and coatings. The use of isocyanates is increasing, particularly in autobody repair and the manufacture of building insulation.
What are the Symptoms of Occupational Asthma?
Symptoms of occupational asthma may surface at any time during or after work. Sometimes symptoms occur with out any clear pattern. People who never had asthma before may develop occupational asthma during adulthood. Workers who already have asthma may discover that their symptoms became worse due to conditions at work. Although symptoms vary, the underlying problem is that airways become inflamed and produce excess mucus due to external irritants in the air. Outward symptoms of occupational asthma include the following:
- Eye irritation
- Nasal congestion and runny nose
- Rapid breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness in the chest
Serious asthma attacks may leave victims feeling dizzy and unable to catch their breath enough to talk. If this happens, call 911 immediately.
Can I Receive Workers’ Compensation for Occupational Asthma?
While each case is different and occupational asthma claims can be complex, many workers in Pennsylvania have been compensated for occupational asthma. Under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, employees are entitled to compensation for work-related illnesses as well as physical workplace injuries. However, workers must prove that their asthma was caused or significantly exacerbated by workplace conditions. This can be challenging because employers and their insurance companies typically look for reasons to deny coverage, including pre-existing conditions or other factors outside of work. For example, workers who smoke or are regularly exposed to environmental pollutants outside of work may have a more difficult time proving that their asthma is work-related.
Pre-Existing Conditions and Work-Exacerbated Asthma
Pennsylvania workers with pre-existing conditions may be eligible for compensation if they meet certain requirements. To have a viable claim, an employee’s pre-existing injury or illness must have been worsened by their work activities or environment. The pre-existing injury itself need not be work-related; therefore, a worker with pre-existing asthma may be eligible for compensation if they can prove that their asthma was exacerbated due to their work.
How Can I Tell If My Asthma Symptoms are Work-Related?
Work-related asthma occurs in people who never had asthma before, but later developed it due to exposure to irritants at work. Workers who had asthma for years may also discover that their condition has gotten a worse due to their work environment. You can tell if your asthma symptoms are work-related by asking yourself the following questions:
- When did you first begin experiencing symptoms?
- Did your asthma start before or after you started your current job?
- Does your asthma get worse at work and better when you are at home or on vacation?
- Are there particular fumes or irritants at work that make it difficult for you to breathe?
Symptoms of work-related asthma may persist, even after exposure ends. It is important to keep in mind that work-related asthma can take years to develop, and you may experience medical problems, despite the use of exhaust systems or personal protective equipment (PPE) on the job. To definitively prove your asthma is work-related, you will need a diagnosis from a licensed physician.
How is Occupational Asthma Diagnosed?
Occupational asthma may be diagnosed by different types of licensed physicians, including general practitioners, allergists, internists, and pulmonologists. Some of the diagnostic steps may include:
- Documenting the frequency and severity of your asthma attacks
- Determining potential triggers of your asthma attacks
- Performing spirometry and other lung function tests before and after your work shift
- Obtaining documents of your medical history, including whether you or your family members have asthma or allergic diseases, such as eczema
Your doctor may also want a list of all the potential irritants in your workplace, including fumes, smoke, dust, and chemicals. Your doctor may also want information about other characteristics of your work environment, including dryness/dampness, heat, and cold.
Can I Choose My Own Doctor?
If you are hoping to receive workers’ compensation benefits to pay for medical bills or lost wages due to work-related asthma, you may not be able to choose your own doctor. If your employer has posted a designated list of health care providers, you must first go to a physician on that list. However, if any of the following statements is true, you can choose your own doctor without jeopardizing your eligibility for workers’ compensation:
- Your employer has not provided you with a list of at least six health care providers that are located within a reasonable geographic distance
- Your injury requires treatment by a specialist and the specialty is not on the list
For example, if none of the health care providers on the list is qualified to diagnose occupational asthma, you may choose your own doctor. You may need to visit a primary care doctor on the list of providers first to get a referral to a specialist. To make sure you remain eligible for workers’ compensation in Pennsylvania, you must seek treatment for occupational asthma within 90 days of recognizing that it is work-related.
How Common is Occupational Asthma?
According to the CDC, approximately one in 12 adults has asthma. More than 17 percent of adult-onset asthma cases are work-related and more than 20 percent of working adults with asthma report that work exposure makes their symptoms worse. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that more than 10 million workers are exposed to at least one known cause of asthma in their workplaces. Allergens and other irritants may exist in the workplace, whether it is outside, in a manufacturing plant, or in an office.
Emergencies May Create Asthma Triggers at Work
Even if airborne contaminants are not typically present at a given workplace, an emergency may produce irritants that trigger asthma attacks among workers. Some of these events may include:
- Gas leaks
- Sewage spills
- Floor spills of chemicals or other hazardous materials
If these or other emergencies occur, workers should evacuate immediately, particularly if they experience breathing difficulties. Headaches and drowsiness may indicate the release of carbon monoxide. All affected workers should seek medical attention.
Other Overlooked Sources of Air Contamination
The substances that trigger asthma in the workplace may not be obvious, particularly if you work in an office. If your asthma symptoms go away when you leave your office, there may be hidden sources of indoor air pollution affecting your health. Potential causes may include:
- Fumes resulting from recent office or building renovations, including painting or carpeting
- Chemicals or particles emitted by copiers, printers, or other machines
- Harmful cleaning products used by janitorial staff
- Rotten or moldy food in office kitchens
- Mold or mildew resulting from high levels of humidity or standing water
- Smoke, vehicle fumes, dust from construction, or other outside pollutants that get sucked indoors by ventilation systems
- Ventilation systems with dirty filters or blocked vents
If your workplace is unhealthy due to these or similar conditions, inform your building management and see a doctor if you are experiencing symptoms of asthma.
Steps for Preventing Further Lung Damage
Occupational asthma is a serious condition. Left untreated, workers may suffer long-term lung damage and disability. Each day, 10 Americans die of asthma; adults are four times more likely to die from asthma than children. However, with early diagnosis and treatment, the effects of work-related asthma can be managed, which is why it is important to receive a diagnosis as soon as possible.
Employers can also take steps to prevent further lung damage to employers by making the workplace safer, which include:
- Identifying potential irritants and asthma triggers
- Eliminating or reducing known asthma triggers
- Monitoring air quality
- Making sure the ventilation system is in good working order
- Providing employees with personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Training workers about safety precautions
- Encouraging all employees to report asthma symptoms
Office environments can also harbor asthma triggers, including dust and mold in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Using safer cleaning products can also make a difference. Solutions of soap and water or vinegar and water may often be substituted for cleaning products that have harmful fumes. OSHA offers many guidelines for maintaining a safe workplace and investigating indoor air complaints, including the following:
- Employee interviews, where employers ask questions about health complaints submitted by workers
- Walk-around inspection of HVAC systems and potential sources of asthma triggers
- Collection of air samples
Despite the laws and guidelines available, many employers overlook the impact of air quality on the job. Workers must be vigilant in detecting triggers that may cause or worsen asthma. They should promptly seek medical advice if they suspect that their symptoms are caused by conditions at work.
Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation Attorneys at Larry Pitt & Associates, P.C. Represent Workers in Occupational Asthma Claims
If you have asthma that you believe was caused or exacerbated by your work duties, contact a Philadelphia workers’ compensation attorney at Larry Pitt & Associates, P.C. to discuss your legal options. Our experienced attorneys can help you prove that your asthma is work-related so you can obtain the compensation you deserve. For a free consultation, complete our online contact form or call us at 888-PITT-LAW.
Located in Philadelphia, Bensalem, Lansdowne, and Reading, we represent injured workers in Berks County, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County, Philadelphia County, and throughout Pennsylvania, including those in the communities of Abington, Ambler, Ardmore, Bala Cynwyd, Bensalem, Clifton Heights, Crum Lynne, Darby, Downingtown, Doylestown, Drexel Hill, Essington, Folcroft, Glenolden, Haverford, Havertown, Holmes, Kutztown, Lansdowne, Media, Merion Station, Morton, Narberth, Norristown, Norwood, Philadelphia, Prospect Park, Quakertown, Reading, Roxborough, Sharon Hill, Upper Darby, West Chester, and Wynnewood.