The growing importance of occupational asthma

by FM Media

There are 1000 to 3000 new cases of occupational asthma diagnosed every year in Australia. ANDREW SIBLEY of Desso examines the issues surrounding occupational asthma and indoor air quality, and looks at how this disease can be prevented and controlled in the workplace.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) defines indoor air as any non-industrial indoor space where a person spends a period of an hour or more in any day. This can include an office, classroom, motor vehicle, shopping centre or home, and has significance as many Australians spend 90 percent or more of their time indoors.
Historically, indoor air quality (IAQ) has been addressed to varying degrees by the health, occupational health and safety, and environmental agencies of government, which together should ensure that is of a sufficient standard for the adequate protection of human health and well-being. It has long been accepted that poor IAQ can result in health problems, which may carry a substantial cost burden. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) estimates that the cost of poor IAQ in Australia may be as high as $12 billion per year.
New work and health harmonisation legislation, however, may prompt greater focus on IAQ and the onus on employers to provide optimum interior working environments. One manifestation of poor quality air is occupational asthma, which is caused by exposure to airborne substances known as asthmagens. Well over 200 respiratory sensitisers have already been classified and others are being identified all the time. It is important to note that occupational asthma is new-onset asthma, not work-aggravated asthma, where the individual already suffers from the condition.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates that between nine and 15 percent of all adult-onset cases of asthma can be attributable to exposures at work. Based on research in Australia and elsewhere, there may be as many as 1000 to 3000 new cases of occupational asthma diagnosed every year in Australia. That’s bad news, as the Australian Lung Foundation simply states: “Once occupational asthma is diagnosed, it is invariably necessary to move to another job or another area to avoid exposure to the causative agent.”
Manufacturing and health/community services are the workplaces at highest risk, but such is the range of asthmagens that many workplaces can be affected.
The most common causes of occupational asthma in Australia are:

  • wood dust from trees such as the Western red cedar
  • isocyanates, which are used in polyurethane products
  • paint fumes
  • solvents
  • latex, and
  • flour.

The harmful effects of particulate matter can be reduced if carpeting is chosen over hard flooring options.

Damage to individual employees can be greatly reduced and costs for employers largely avoided by adopting appropriate preventative and control strategies, and by the early identification of individuals within the workplace suffering from pre-existing asthma or potentially suffering from occupational asthma.
At the pre-employment stage, prospective employees should be asked about any pre-existing asthma and whether they could be sensitive to substances in the workplace. This could provide grounds for not selecting that person. A previous history of asthma is not significantly associated with occupational asthma, however, and many jurisdictions now make it unlawful in codes of employment to discriminate against asthmatics. Sufferers of occupational asthma now have greater access to legal redress and financial compensation from their employers.
Prevention and control starts with a workplace assessment to identify potential asthmagens and, thereafter, an exchange of views between the employer, employees and workplace health and safety professionals on appropriate strategies to minimise or eliminate exposure; for example, installing a better ventilation system or placing dangerous chemicals in a fume cupboard.
Apart from indoor smoking, the most likely things to cause problems are dust, chemicals, perfumes and air fresheners. These can be easily addressed by asking staff not to wear perfume or aftershave at work, to use unscented soaps, deodorants and hair products, and not to smoke immediately before coming into the office. In addition, the use of non-volatile cleaning products and unscented air fresheners should be a requirement.
In addition, among others, the German asthma foundation has advised that the harmful effects of particulate matter can be reduced if carpeting is chosen over hard flooring options, as carpets are more effective in capturing and retaining fine dust than hard flooring. The incidence of potentially harmful allergy-producing particles is reduced by trapping and immobilising them, thus providing an improvement in indoor air quality, and therefore reducing the risk of health-related problems.
GUI, which specialises in assessing air quality, dampness and dust particle counts, carried out independent tests based on a Desso carpet’s performance against standard PVC hard flooring. It found that the carpet was eight times more effective in capturing and retaining fine dust than the hard flooring. Although it is not a complete solution to occupational asthma, the correct carpeting can help considerably.

Where a significant risk of occupational asthma is identified, continued health surveillance may be required, involving a program of spirometry (lung function) testing to detect early indications of disease and provide appropriate medical advice to individual employees.
Early detection is important, because people spend so much time at work – one estimate suggests that a person in a full-time office job will spend up to 1800 hours a year in their office – that they will have had extensive exposure to their trigger by the time their symptoms become apparent and a diagnosis of asthma is made.
The longer the time spent exposed to the asthmagen, the more likely it is that permanent lung inflammation and airway hypersensitivity will occur. This is why it’s important for issues of indoor air quality or occupational asthma to be raised at the earliest opportunity.
While it’s impossible to protect all employees from all possible asthmagens, the growing importance of work-related asthma, with its associated duty of care from employers, means that the role of health and safety and personnel professionals continues to change – not only in monitoring indoor air quality, but in providing the best possible overall environment for staff.

Gary O’Bryan, managing director of 360 Facility Management, comments: “The new legislation with regards to indoor air quality (IAQ) has been quite a discussion point. I have spoken at length with our facility managers, clients and other facility managers in the industry, particularly those that have completed fitouts and refurbishments in the past 12 months. The clients we surveyed did not have specific guidelines for asthma sufferers, but are aware of the requirements and their responsibility to select low VOC emitting fixtures and fittings.
“I am unaware of any instances of poor IAQ and/or occupational asthma that have come before tribunals or the courts. However, legal remedies may be the driving force for change within organisations – when sufferers are made aware of their employers’ responsibilities. There is a lack of awareness in the industry with regards to the specifics in the legislation. It screams out for an industry education program.”

Andrew Sibley is Desso’s regional sales and marketing director for Australasia.

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