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Occupational asthma: Does your job leave you breathless?

Occupational asthma is the most prevalent work-related lung disease nationwide. While typically not as life-threatening as terminal lung cancer or other deadly conditions, it can nonetheless greatly affect your quality of life, leading to chronic breathing problems, shortness of breath, tightness in your chest and wheezing. Severe asthma attacks can even be fatal.

Timely diagnosis is essential for keeping occupational asthma under control. Left untreated, it can steadily worsen over time, especially with repeated exposure to allergens. Severe cases may leave you unable to work or engage in the activities you enjoy.

Common causes of occupational asthma

Almost any work environment can expose workers to substances that either cause occupational asthma or exacerbate preexisting asthma. The list of known irritants is extensive. Among them are everyday materials such as cleaning products, paint, dust, latex, mold and flour. Other culprits include chemicals, fumes and particles specific to certain industries.

How can employers control occupational asthma?

Employers should recognize the fact that affected workers influence productivity, and ultimately, the bottom line. To keep their employees safe and healthy, employers can take the following steps to prevent exposure that can cause this debilitating disease:

  • Compliance: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides guidelines and regulations to control exposure to irritants and allergens, and compliance may make the work environment safer.
  • Prevention: Elimination and reduction of irritants and allergens in the workspaces could limit reported asthma cases.
  • Detection: Surveillance measures to detect initial symptoms can ensure prompt treatment and help with identification of hazardous substances.

How can you protect yourself?

You are entitled to a safe work environment. You also have the right to report unsafe conditions to your employer. By taking the following precautions, you might avoid developing lung problems:

  • Avoid exposure: At the first sign of chest tightness or an allergic reaction, remove yourself from that area. If appropriate, you can request respiratory protection equipment.
  • Report potential problems: If you notice any potential air quality problem, including malfunctioning ventilation, mention it to your employer. You should also report any diagnosis of work-related asthma.
  • Seek medical care: Never underestimate the seriousness of occupational asthma. See your physician immediately if you experience respiratory problems.
  • Get legal advice: You may be entitled to workers' compensation for occupational asthma. Speak with a lawyer to discuss your rights.

Nobody should have to live with occupational asthma that could be prevented or improved through a change in working conditions.

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