In most cases, asthma develops in childhood. The condition may either go into remission with age or continue as a chronic issue into adulthood. But for some adults in the workforce, repeated exposure to irritants causes occupational asthma. People with a history of asthma or allergies are at greater risk of developing occupational asthma, but it can develop in people with no previous respiratory issues.
Signs of Occupational Asthma
Like other types of asthma, you’ll notice symptoms like wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. These symptoms usually get worse as the work week progresses, and improve on days off or on vacation. This on-and-off nature of occupational asthma can continue for months or years, and usually gets worse over time. Changing careers can help to solve some cases of occupational asthma, but depending on the chemicals involved, permanent respiratory damage is a possibility.
Occupational asthma statistics are assumed to be underrepresented in most workplaces. Why is it difficult to get an idea of how many people suffer from the condition?
- Healthy worker effect: People who experience negative health effects are likely to leave a job relatively quickly. This can cause studies and statistics to make jobs appear safer than they actually are.
- Low income workers may fear that reporting health conditions will result in losing their jobs.
5 Most Common Types of Occupational Asthma
Jobs involving chemicals, dusts, and solvents can cause occupational asthma, especially if protective equipment isn’t worn. These are 5 of the most common jobs where asthma is a risk:
You’ve heard of baking chocolate, baker’s yeast, and a baker’s dozen, but what about baker’s asthma? As it turns out, making a living working with doughy breads and delicate pastries can be tough on the lungs.
The most obvious trigger of baker’s asthma is all of that dust. In a busy bakery surfaces, hands, and clothes are all covered in a layer of flour that frequently becomes airborne.
Bakeries also happen to be overflowing with potential allergens; nuts, seeds, eggs, and grains like wheat and barley are everywhere. And with the vast majority of bakers working without protective respiratory equipment, baker’s asthma continues to be one of the most common forms of occupational asthma.
2. Hairstylists & Estheticians
Stray hair isn’t the only thing you risk inhaling at a salon. The chemicals involved in bleaching, coloring, and straightening treatments might not be a big deal for clients who come in once every few months. But the stylists constantly exposed to these fumes report higher rates of respiratory issues.
- Studies involving the same hairdressers several years apart have found reduced lung function and performance during spirometry tests, while those who quit the occupation often see their lung function improve.
- Persulfate salts found in bleaching and lightening products are the main cause of asthma in hairstylists, but aerosol hairspray and the perfumes and dyes in other products can also irritate airways, especially after years of repeated use.
- In addition to these respiratory issues, hairdressers are at higher risks for developing conditions like arthritis and eczema.
- Estheticians in nail salons face similarly high rates of occupational asthma, caused by frequent exposure to nail polish fumes, dust from filing, and the solvents used in acrylic nail sets.
- The chemical brew that nail technicians are frequently exposed to (including toluene and formaldehyde) has also been linked to reproductive issues and birth defects.
If you weren’t already in the habit of generously tipping your hairstylists and estheticians, now is a good time to start.
3. Carpenters & Woodworkers
Exposure to wood dust is the biggest factor in carpenters’ compromised respiratory health. But other substances like glues and solvents may contribute to asthma symptoms. Mold and other toxic materials in wet wood can also trigger health issues in carpenters and anyone else who frequently cuts wood on the job.
Western red cedar trees are an especially bad offender, releasing a compound caused plicatic acid that some scientists believe causes damage to bronchial cells. Unlike other forms of occupational asthma that may improve once a person changes jobs, western red cedar asthmatics tend to have symptoms long after they retire or quit.
4. Tea Industry
Open a box of tea and you’ll notice a fine dust that’s escaped from the filter paper bags. In the factories where dried tea is sifted and packed this dust – known as tea fluff – is everywhere. Studies have found higher instances of respiratory symptoms among tea industry workers in India and Taiwan, and workers at various stages of production are affected.
- Garden – Tea workers who care for plants and pick leaves are exposed to environmental allergens like pollens as well as pesticide sprays.
- Factory – Tea fluff may be inhaled by workers involved in the processes of grinding, milling, sifting and packing tea.
Tea worker’s asthma seems to occur in both black and herbal tea manufacturing, although the blend of different products used in herbal teas may contain more allergens.
5. Coffee Workers
Roasting, grinding, scooping, and packaging coffee for a living can also put workers at risk of developing asthma and other respiratory issues. Some workers may become sensitized to the dust from green coffee beans, and asthma or allergy symptoms will then be triggered whenever they come into contact with it.
Another cause of respiratory illness in coffee workers is diacetyl, a chemical additive in microwave popcorn and flavored coffee. Diacetyl is deemed safe to ingest in small amounts, but can lead to obstructive lung diseases in workers who inhale it. It’s recently been discovered that diacetyl is released naturally when coffee is roasted, which may be responsible for permanently damaging the airway of employees in roasting facilities.
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