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Occupational (Work-Related) Asthma

General Information About Work-Related Asthma

There are hundreds of known causes of work-related asthma. Each year in Michigan, about 150 new cases of asthma caused by exposures to substances at work are reported to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA). Inspections at the companies where these people work find large numbers of fellow workers with asthma or breathing symptoms like asthma.

The work exposures may make a person’s existing asthma worse, or cause new asthma either from becoming allergic to a work place substance or from exposure to a high level of an irritant chemical.

Over 400 substances that can cause asthma in the work place have been identified, and the list continues to grow. Even very low levels of exposure to some of these substances can aggravate or cause asthma. However, employees, employers and health care professionals are often unaware of the association of an individual's asthma with exposure to substances in the work place.

In Michigan, new cases of work-related asthma are identified in 140-150 workers each year; this is an underestimate of the true number of individuals developing asthma from work place exposures in our state. It is estimated there are 228-801 individuals a year who develop work-related asthma in Michigan. Since approximately 15% of asthma is considered to be work-related, and there are at least 500,000 adults with asthma in Michigan.

A special State tracking program has been identifying individuals with work-related asthma since 1988. The program interviews workers about their work place exposures, their symptoms and the timing of symptoms in relation to work. In some cases, Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) enforcement officers inspect the work places of the individuals identified in the tracking program. The inspections document exposures, the presence of other symptomatic co-workers, and compliance with Michigan OSHA regulations.

Each year, a summary of the findings from this tracking program is published. View the most recent Work-Related Annual Report.

Here Are A Few Work-Related Asthma Facts

  • 54.1% of Michigan adults with current asthma have ever told a health professional or were ever told by a health professional that their asthma was work-related. [1]
  • Only 21.5% of Michigan adults with current asthma who thought work caused or was making their asthma worse ever discussed this fact with a health professional. [1]
  • The most common exposures associated with work-related asthma in Michigan are isocyanates and disinfectants and other cleaning agents. Other common causes are metal working fluids, poor indoor air quality in offices and welding. [2]

Work-related death investigations have been conducted by MIOSHA and the Michigan Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (MIFACE) research program. One example is a worker died who from an acute asthmatic attack caused by exposure to isocyanates while applying a spray-on truck bedliner and another where a worker died from exposure to isocyanates while they were used in the manufacture of adhesive products.

View copies of the MIFACE reports at:

Substances at work that can cause asthma, and types of work related asthma

There are 3 types of work-related asthma. Learn more about the types of work-related asthma, and find a list of known substances that can cause asthma.

Myths about work-related asthma
There are some commonly held beliefs about work-related asthma that just aren't true.

Diagnosing and preventing work-related asthma
Find out how work-related asthma is diagnosed, how it can be prevented, and what can be done about it.
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America has developed a useful workplace asthma and allergy assessment tool.

More information about how to screen for work-related asthma

Continuing Medical Education (CME) Opportunity

A free online CME course for physicians has been developed on the diagnosis and management of work-related asthma and other asthma topics.

Go to the links page, then click on worksites/employers to find more resources about work-related asthma.


Based on materials reviewed and provided by the Michigan State University Occupational and Environmental MedicineDepartment, 2003, updated 2004, updated 2013.

Sources:

  1. Lutzker LA, Rafferty AP, Brunner WM, Walters JK, Wasilevich EA, PhD, Green MK, Rosenman KD. Prevalence of Work-Related Asthma in Michigan, Minnesota and Oregon. Journal of Asthma 2010; 47:156-161.
  2. Resources on Work-Related Asthma (WRA) www.oem.msu.edu/Resources.asp