SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- If your asthma symptoms are worse during the working week, you may be experiencing occupational asthma.
- It is important to avoid exposure to the asthma triggers in your workplace.
- Work together with your employer to develop strategies to reduce your exposure to substances that trigger your asthma.
- Work closely with your doctor to ensure your asthma is well managed with the right treatment regime for your needs.
On this page
There are many substances in the workplace that may cause asthma to develop, or trigger asthma symptoms in someone who already has asthma. If you experience asthma symptoms at work, and these symptoms improve when you are away from work, such as during holidays or on weekends, you may have what is called work-related or occupational asthma.
What can cause asthma in the workplace?
Occupational asthma can occur in many types of workplaces, but is most commonly reported where people are working with flour or grains and isocyanates (chemicals which are found in paints as hardening agents).
Other substances may include wood dust (such as western red cedar, redwood, and oak), strong cleaning products, chemicals or animal allergens.
Occupational asthma symptoms
Occupational asthma may be indicated by symptoms that:
- vary during the working week or shift
- occur at night, in the morning after significant exposure, or during the working day
- improve over weekends or holidays
- persist even outside the workplace after prolonged exposure and when asthma becomes more severe.
Occupational asthma is generally preventable if you avoid the triggers of asthma in the workplace.
Work-aggravated asthma occurs when there is sensitisation to a substance encountered at work, which is different from occupational asthma. Work-aggravated asthma occurs when people who already have asthma are exposed to factors, such as gases or fumes, smoke, dust or cold dry air, which irritate the airways, causing asthma symptoms to occur and make a pre-existing condition worse.
Asthma and high-risk jobs
Some jobs are more likely to affect a person with asthma because of the triggers in the environment. These include:
- aluminium smelter – aluminium compounds
- automotive industry – chemicals
- baking and pastry cooks – flour, additives, sodium metabisulphite, enzymes and fungi
- car repairs and panel beating – epoxy resins and organic solvents
- carpet factory workers – vegetable gums
- chemists – chemicals
- cleaning – enzymes
- detergent manufacturing – enzymes
- electronics – solder fumes, metal salts, dusts and fumes
- embalmers – chemicals
- entomologists – insects
- farming, harvesting, process workers, fishers – grain dust, hay, animal dander and excreta, bird products, seafood and fungi
- fire-fighting – smoke and combustion products
- flooring and tiling – chemicals
- floristry and gardening – flowers, pollen and chemicals
- foam manufacturers – adhesives and chemicals
- garage attendants – car exhaust fumes
- hairdressing and cosmetics – dyes, perfumes, sprays and chemicals
- healthcare workers including dentists – psyllium, latex, enzymes, chemicals, metals and medicines (anti-biotics, opiates)
- jewellers and artists – solder
- laboratory – animal dander and excreta, insects and chemicals
- medical equipment – latex
- metal refining – acids, chlorines, aluminium, heavy metal salts and solder
- milling and grain handling – fumigants and grain dust
- motor industry and welders – solder
- oil refining – hydrocarbon mists
- packers – dust
- painting and decorating, spray painting – paint additives and solvents, and chemicals
- pharmaceutical industry – vegetable gums and chemicals
- photography – metals
- printing – dyes and solvents
- textile industry and tanners – cotton and chemicals
- toy factory – latex
- warehouse – enzymes
- woodworking, carpentry, sawmills, arborists, sanders – wood dust
- working with animals, veterinary, breeders, groomers – animal dander and animal excreta, and egg protein.
Reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS)
If you have inhaled a high dose of a substance that causes damage to the airways, possibly as part of an industrial accident or spillage, you may temporarily experience breathlessness and a wheeze similar to asthma. This is called reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS).
Symptoms usually occur within 24 hours of a single exposure to very high concentrations of a chemical spill, irritant gases, corrosive mists or solvent vapours. Usually, symptoms will gradually improve as your airways heal, but occasionally, workers can be left with permanent symptoms.
RADS might explain an increase in respiratory symptoms among firefighters.
Preventing exposure to triggers
For some people with asthma, ongoing exposure to triggers can cause continued inflammation and excess mucus production in the airways, and can make a person’s asthma worse. Ongoing exposure can lead to more severe asthma and irreversible airway damage. Where possible, workplaces should avoid using substances that can trigger asthma. This can be achieved by no longer using the substance or substituting it for one that is less hazardous to the person’s health.
Where removal of the workplace trigger is not possible, reducing exposure by using local exhaust ventilation systems or Australian Standards approved respiratory protection devices can also help exposure to triggers. The employer and employee should work together to develop strategies to reduce exposure to triggers and irritants in the workplace.
Workers should not disregard the importance of workplace asthma triggers and may need to consider alternative working arrangements if exposure to the trigger can’t be eliminated.
Using approved respiratory protection devices during fires should be considered a critical measure to reduce the impact of exposure for firefighters.
Early treatment for workplace asthma is crucial
If you did not have asthma previously, and think you have developed asthma following exposure to substances in the workplace, it is important to seek medical advice for tests and an accurate diagnosis.
Your doctor will confirm if you have asthma and if it’s associated with exposures at work, and identify the specific causative agent.
People with workplace asthma should absolutely avoid repeated exposure.
With your permission, your doctor could make contact with your employer to advise on protection for other workers.
Where to get help
- Your GP (doctor)
- Your health and safety representative at work
- WorkSafe Victoria Tel. 1800 136 089
- Asthma Australia Tel. 1800 ASTHMA (1800 278 462)
- Investigating suspected work-related asthma, 2020, Australian Asthma Handbook, National Asthma Council.
- Work-related asthma: an update for primary care health professionals, 2020, National Asthma Council.
- Australian Asthma Handbook, 2020, National Asthma Council.
- Workers’ comp claims just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to occupational asthma, Asthma Australia.
- Occupational asthma, 2014, Government of Western Australia.
- Hoy R, Abramson M, Sim M 2010, ‘Work-related asthma – Diagnosis and management’, Australian Family Physician, vol. 39 no. 1, pp. 39-42.
- Meidinger D, Chhajed D, Stolz C, et al. 2007. ‘Respiratory symptoms, atopy and bronchial hyperactivity in professional firefighters’, European Respiratory Journal, vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 538-544.
- Reisen F, Tiganis BE, 2007. ‘Australian firefighters exposure to air toxics in bushfire smoke: What do we know?’, CSIRO.