Workplace Triggers

If something at work is affecting your asthma, you might feel that your asthma gets worse soon after starting a new job or while you are doing a particular part of your job, or that your asthma improves when you are not at work. Some common New Zealand work place triggers are:

  • 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

Sometimes people who have not had asthma before can develop asthma through an allergic reaction to a substance in the workplace.

This may happen even after years of working safely with the substance.

Sometimes the allergic reaction and its symptoms don’t develop until some hours after the exposure. It is therefore often difficult to identify the 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.

Common substances or processes recognised as causing asthma problems include:

  • Working with chemicals such as those used in some paints and glues, foam manufacture etc, or expoxy resins. Common industries include spray painting and boat building.
  • Working with wood dusts. Problem dusts include western red cedar, rimu and some particle boards (building and joinery industries)
  • Being exposed to metal fumes or dusts (aluminium smelting, welding, etc)
  • Being exposed to dusts from organic sources such as flour, animals, insects, etc.

The prevalence of occupational asthma is higher in smokers.

What can you do?

Talk about the problem with your doctor or the occupational health nurse if one visits yours workplace. The doctor 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. 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?
  • What can you or your employer do if you are not sure if there is a problem at work?
  • WorkSafe New Zealand can be contacted for advice. They have the resources to provide information and advice about workplace hazards and the best (and most practicable) means of controlling these problems if they exist.
  • Your union may also be able to offer help.