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Sep 2016

Catch Your Breath: Managing Asthma in the Workplace


anatomy with highlighted lungs

An iron fist clutches your lungs. You feel your chest constrict as you try to suck air through your gaping mouth. You stumble to a chair, and clumsily pull an inhaler from your pocket. You pump the inhaler three times. Your lungs loosen, and you feel the panic ebb as your heart rate slows. You sit for a few moments, gathering yourself. Finally, you stand back up and continue your work; dreading the next imminent bout with breathless agony….

Asthma in the United States

Asthma effects approximately 7.5% of adults in the United States; that means over 17 million individuals over the age of 18 struggle with asthma on a daily basis. It can be a debilitating factor in the lives of otherwise healthy people. Asthma affects children at an even higher rate. Nationally, over 8% of people younger than 18 are diagnosed with an asthmatic condition. There are over 6 million children with asthma in the United States. Treatment for asthma is done with both long-term medications, as well as short-term ones. The long-term medications work to reduce the swelling of the airways, whereas short-term medications are reserved for instances of asthma attacks and flare-ups.

Asthma is a chronic disease that inflames the passageways to the lungs, making breathing difficult. The passageways to the lungs, or airways, react to certain inhaled substances. When they react, they constrict and breathing becomes impaired. Additionally, mucus-producing cells in the airways could make excessive amounts of mucus; clogging the already pinched airway.

Asthma in the Workplace

Workers who suffer from asthma have to monitor and treat their asthma on a daily basis. This becomes much more difficult when workplace conditions can trigger and induce asthma symptoms. Workplace conditions have a significant impact on the prevalence and severity of asthma in workers. In fact, 1 in every 6 workers with asthma experiences workplace conditions that either exacerbate or cause their condition.

There are a number of factors to consider when trying to improve air quality in the workplace. Asthma attacks and symptoms can be triggered by a variety of things. Irritants in the air, such as dust-mites, mold or pollens can cause asthma flare-ups in individuals who also suffer from allergies. However, there are a number of other irritants that can cause an asthmatic reaction.

  1. Smoke from cigarettes, wood fires, or grills.
  2. Strong odors and fumes from paint, chemicals, or soaps.
  3. Dust particles or other small particles in the air.
  4. Expressing or feeling strong emotions.
  5. Outdoor air pollution

There are many different things to consider when addressing the problem of asthma in your workplace. Controlling and limiting exposure to things that can trigger a reaction can be difficult. However, there are steps employers (and employees) can take to do so.

First, identify areas of the work environment where any triggers are likely to occur. For example, locating areas where mold growth can occur. Identifying these areas will help narrow the scope of exactly which areas employees with asthma are exposed to irritants.

Employers should focus on keeping the air quality as pure as possible. Proper ventilation and filtration should be a priority. Additionally, employers should utilize equipment that mitigates the creation of dust, fumes, or other irritants. Employees should be outfitted with the proper PPE as well. Especially employees who suffer from an asthmatic condition.

Finally, designating smoking and grilling areas can protect workers with asthma. Employees who wish to smoke should do so outdoors, and in an area that is not frequented by others. Additionally, any grilling (for company picnics, work parties, etc.) and wood fires should be away from areas where they could affect workers with asthma.

Ultimately, there won’t be a perfect workplace. Employees with asthma will have to struggle on a daily basis. However, employers should seek to mitigate the risks employees with asthma have to face in their work environment. If you have overlooked the problem of asthma in your workplace, then let your employees catch their breath, and address the issue today.

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