CDC: Work-Related Asthma Affects Nearly 2 Million People

By Roy Maurer Apr 17, 2015

Asthma associated with work affects about 1.9 million U.S. adults, according to the results of a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC defines work-related asthma as both new-onset asthma caused by factors related to work or as pre-existing or concurrent asthma worsened by factors related to work.

Work-related asthma accounts for 16 percent of the approximately 1 in 10 American adults with asthma who have ever been employed, according to the CDC.

“Work-related asthma is associated with increased disability, mortality, and adverse social and economic outcomes,” said Jacek Mazurek, the lead author of the study report and a research epidemiologist at the division of respiratory disease studies at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The study compared the prevalence of asthma in adults with the proportion of ever-employed adults with asthma who have been told by a health professional that their asthma was work-related. The data was extrapolated from a sample of 205,755 adults in 22 states.

The proportion of work-related asthma among ever-employed people with asthma differed significantly by age and was highest among those ages 45 to 64 (21 percent). Of the states studied, the estimated proportions of ever-employed adults with asthma who were diagnosed with work-related asthma ranged from 9 percent in Hawaii to 23 percent in Missouri.

The types of jobs that may expose workers to asthma triggers include those in industrial plants, metal machine shops, welding shops, hospitals and laboratories, woodworking and furniture-making shops, hair and nail salons, and department stores.

The occupational contribution to the prevalence of this disease is substantial, said Susan Tarlo, a professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Toronto.

“Workrelated factors should be considered in the assessment of all persons whose asthma started while working or who are currently working with this disease,” she said.

The American College of Chest Physicians advises that employees with occupational asthma no longer work with exposure to the substance that causes an asthmatic response. “It is recognized that this may not be easy to achieve,” said Tarlo, for example, where the causative agent cannot be removed from a work process, where the worker cannot be moved to another area of the worksite, or when the economic consequences of a worker changing jobs or job duties are adverse.

“Nonetheless, the medical outcome of asthma is best with early removal of the offending exposure, when the disease is milder and more likely to remit or resolve altogether,” she said. Other measures of occupational asthma control include limiting exposure to environmental triggers, pharmacologic measures and education, according to the experts.

Tarlo recommended that employers review occupational hygiene measures to minimize the likelihood that the workplace conditions that caused the initial irritant exposure recur, such as preventing the mixing of cleaning agents that release irritant fumes and utilizing better ventilation methods and appropriate respirators for shortterm exposures.

The American College of Chest Physicians recommended additional steps designed to prevent work-related asthma, including:

  • Avoiding unnecessary use of natural rubber latex gloves and substituting nonlatex gloves.
  • Enclosing processes that expose workers.
  • Using robotics instead of workers in high-exposure areas.
  • Conducting air sampling to ensure that approved exposure concentrations are not exceeded.
  • Implementing joint worker-management approaches to enhance compliance with safety measures.
  • Utilizing medical surveillance measures.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy


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