Every year in New Zealand, hundreds of people die and thousands are hospitalised after being exposed to harmful contaminants at work. For ‘World Safety & Health at Work Day’ on Sunday 28 April, we take a look at what the common asthma triggers are at work and what you can do to protect yourself.

What is occupational respiratory disease?

Lung cancer, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are all examples of occupational respiratory diseases that can be caused by long-term exposure to airborne toxins at work.

These exposures are one of the main causes of work-related mortality in New Zealand, accounting for about 250 deaths per year.

Sometimes symptoms don’t develop until some hours after the exposure, so it is, therefore, often difficult to identify a workplace as the cause.

Other people develop asthma for the first time in the workplace after heavy exposure to irritants of the breathing tubes, such as welding fumes or gaseous vapours, like sulphur dioxide - it may even happen years after working safely with a substance. The prevalence of occupational asthma is higher in smokers.


What are some common New Zealand workplace triggers?

• Wood dusts

• Flour and grain dusts from farms, granaries, and bakeries

• Animal fur and protein from laboratories and veterinary clinics

• Foams and plastics, and the fumes given off during their manufacture

• Isocyanate paints

• Epoxy resins and other plastics from boat builders, mould manufacturers and plastic manufacturing processors

What can you do?

Talk about the problem with your healthcare practitioner or the occupational health nurse

if one visits your workplace. Your healthcare practitioner will ask you to note what substances or processes you are exposed to in your work, if your symptoms worsen during each shift, or if there is any improvement away from work.

They can also teach you how to use a peak flow meter. This measures how fast you can breathe out and tells you how well your airways are working. Taking readings at work and at home can help determine if the issue is workplace-related.

If a workplace process or substance is causing or making your asthma worse, there are several steps that you can explore with your employer to lessen the problem. They are:

Elimination: Can the substance or process be changed for something less harmful?

Isolation: Can the substance or process be isolated to a special place in the worksite or time of day when most people will not be exposed?

Minimisation: Can the equipment be improved to reduce the exposure?

WorkSafe New Zealand can be contacted for advice. They have resources to provide information and advice about workplace hazards and the best (and most practicable) means of controlling these problems if they exist.

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