Asthma and Allergies are Nothing to Sneeze At
When we think about allergies and asthma, most of us are quick to lump them in with the maladies that are part of childhood. They’re like mumps and chickenpox, one of those things that many of us endure in our younger years. They’re just irritants that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with workplace safety, right?
That’s a dangerous misconception. Fact is, both asthma and allergies can affect worker health and performance. And neither is a childhood disease. A growing number of adults are affected by both. The Centers for Disease Control reports than nearly one in 12 Americans has asthma, and the numbers grow every year, contributing to more than $56 billion in medical costs, early deaths, and lost work and school days.
What makes them workplace issues? First, both conditions can have a significant impact on how well workers function. Just as important is the fact that workplace conditions can trigger both allergy and asthma attacks. In fact, OSHA says that up to 15 percent of disabling asthma cases in the U.S. are associated with occupational factors. The agency estimates that 11 million workers are exposed to at least one agent known to be related to asthma in their workplaces.
What are they?
Allergies are sensitivities caused by exposures to a wide range of agents that can include everything from dust and pollen, to specific foods, to items such as insect bites and cat dander. In people with allergies, exposure can cause respiratory and sinus irritation, hives and other skin irritation, and, in the most severe cases, life-threatening anaphylactic reactions. Anaphylaxis can cause a wide range of symptoms, from itching to swelling of the tongue and throat, difficulty breathing, and even loss of consciousness. It typically develops within minutes of exposure to the allergic agent.
Asthma is an illness that most often involves difficulty to breathe, because it narrows the air passages in the lungs. A person suffering an asthma attack may feel a tightness in their chest. They may start coughing or wheezing as they struggle to draw air into their lungs. Asthma attacks can be severe enough to be fatal. Unlike allergic attacks, asthma does not always manifest itself quickly. Some forms of the disease may take weeks or even years to develop after exposure to whatever triggered it. As for triggering factors, they can range from exposure to air pollution, dust, smoke, mold, excessive exercise, and even stress.
One type of asthma is directly related to occupational hazards. Generally known as work-related asthma, it is triggered by exposure to substances in the workplace. The symptoms are generally worse while the individual is as work, with the severity improving when the individual is at home (although attacks may awaken victims at night).
Substances that may trigger work-related asthma include some chemicals, enzymes, natural rubber, and animal proteins. In some cases, the asthma results from long-term exposures to these substances. When the human body encounters a foreign substance, it develops antibodies to protect itself. Sometimes, after continuous exposure, the body produces too many antibodies, causing sensitivity that contracts muscles in the lung and airways. In other cases, asthma is caused by a large one-time exposure to a substance.
Allergic reactions and asthma attacks in the workplace can run the gamut from briefly interfering with work tasks to demanding emergency medical attention. In mild cases, the worker may be distracted by sneezing, watery eyes, or labored breathing. Moving away from the triggers may provide relief. In more serious cases, the worker may become unconscious, and death or long-term damage may occur without proper medical treatment.
As with most safety hazards, the best approach is knowledge and prevention. For starters, it’s important to know whether employees suffer from asthma or allergies, and to take steps to reduce their exposure on the worksite. That may involve moving them to tasks where they won’t be exposed, or ensuring that they wear masks, respirators, gloves, and other personal protective equipment.
If a member of a team has an allergy that’s severe enough that anaphylaxis is a possibility, educate other workers on the team about the symptoms and the actions they can take in an emergency. For example, people at risk for anaphylaxis from bee stings may carry emergency antihistamines or injectable epinephrine (often known as epi-pens) that their co-workers can access in an emergency.
Another way to reduce the possibility of a severe allergic reaction or asthma attack is to replace substances that can trigger problems with less-harmful alternatives, or to use engineering controls that reduce exposure (such as enhanced ventilation). Worker education is important, especially when it comes to cleaning and housekeeping.
When possible, it’s also a good idea to include allergy-related items in first-aid kits. Depending upon the workers’ needs and the situations, that may include epi-pens, rescue inhalers, and oral steroids or antihistamines. Given that many worksites are at a distance from the nearest EMS, having those materials on hand may truly make a life-or-death difference.