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Wheezing; coughing; shortness of breath; and tightness in your chest - all are symptoms of asthma. And it just may be your job that is making you sick.
It may not be easy to tell if your work is causing the asthma. But if you are inhaling fumes, gases, dust or other potentially harmful substances while you work, you may be at risk for occupational asthma. The symptoms may start hours after you get to work or even after you leave. With occupational asthma, a previously healthy worker may develop asthma symptoms for the first time, or someone who is already asthmatic may be aggravated by exposures in the workplace. Symptoms that worsen through the workweek, improve on the weekend or while you are on vacation and start again when you return to your job could be a sign that you have occupational asthma.
What are the causes and who is at risk?
Occupational asthma is the leading cause of work-related lung disease in developing countries and according to a recent report out of Europe, may represent one out of four new asthma cases. Over 350 chemicals, mixtures, and processes found in the workplace have been related to the cause of new onset asthma as well as the aggravation of the existing condition in workers.
If you smoke you may be at greater risk for developing asthma following a workplace exposure. Traditionally exposures to flour, wood dust and grain caused breathing problems. Now there are new sources of workplace asthma, including latex and various chemicals used in manufacturing products.
Common substances that cause occupational asthma*
Workers at risk
Users of plastics, epoxy resins
Animal handlers, veterinarians, farmers
Janitors, cleaning staff
Pharmaceutical workers, health care professionals
Detergent workers, pharmaceutical workers, bakers
Carpet makers, pharmaceutical workers
Spray painters, insulation installers, plastics, foam and rubber industry workers
Health care professionals
Solderers, refiners, printers
Seafood processing workers
Forest workers, carpenters, loggers, cabinetmakers, construction workers
Farmers, grain workers
*Source: American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI)
Results of the European Community Respiratory Health Survey published in July 2007 showed that nurses, printers, woodworkers, agriculture/forestry, and cleaning are more likely than the average population to develop work-related asthma. It is suspected that the high rate of asthma amongst nurses might be caused by exposure to sensitizing substances, respiratory allergens, and irritants including sterilizers and disinfectants.
There is no magic number as to how long you have to be exposed to irritants or allergens before asthma symptoms are triggered. It can take months or even years to develop occupational asthma, and in acute inhalation events - high exposure to fumes or dusts may cause asthma immediately or within 24 hours. The European research team found that the risk of asthma tripled after incidents such as fires, mixing of cleaning products or chemical spills.
What can we do?
Learn more about occupational asthma and what occupations are at risk for asthma from CCOHS, and breath a little easier at work.
Register for the webinar on Occupational Asthma presented by the Occupational & Environmental Medicine Section of the Ontario Medical Association and the McMaster University Program in Occupational Health & Environmental Medicine.
Visit the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) website: www.aaaai.org/patients/allergic_conditions/occupational_asthma.stm
With the seemingly ever-present hazards in the workplace, we must continuously find ways to keep workers safe. Employees, supervisors and workers can learn from two recent incidents:
A firefighter in British Columbia suffered fatal heat stroke and dehydration after participating in live-fire training exercises. The man, wearing full protective gear during a rest break, had a heart attack and collapsed. He received immediate first aid and oxygen but later died in hospital.
People who are professionals at saving lives need protection, too, from workplace hazards. WorkSafe BC has released a hazard alert bulletin that recommends safe work practices for firefighters:
Establish a policy on heat stress. Only firefighters who pass a fitness assessment (to determine blood pressure, heart rate and temperature) should participate in training exercises. Everyone at the worksite should be trained to recognize the early signs and symptoms of heat stress in themselves and others; these symptoms include weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea, and lack of coordination. The fire hall should have procedures to treat firefighters who are experiencing heat stress or life-threatening heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Keep firefighters hydrated and cool. While training, firefighters need regular rest breaks in cool, well-ventilated areas, and sufficient water and fruit juices. During rest breaks, it should be workplace policy that firefighters cool off by removing their turnout gear. A rehabilitation officer should be present at each training session, to monitor firefighters and make sure they stay hydrated and cool off during breaks.
Meanwhile, in Nova ScotiaÂ…
A worker was operating a boom truck by remote control. Noticing that the boom was not extending, he looked down at the remote control, trying to find the emergency stop switch. That's when the boom suddenly moved, trapping his finger between the boom and the load. His finger was cut off.
The Nova Scotia Department of the Environment and Labour reminds people in industrial workplaces to follow manufacturers' instructions when using any equipment. Anyone using the equipment must first receive proper training.
Every workplace must have a formal program in place for routine equipment inspection and maintenance. In addition, equipment needs to be checked before use on every shift.
There should be a safe work procedure that prevents people from getting struck by the equipment. Wherever possible, it's better to use equipment that cannot be started by mistake, and that can only control one piece of equipment at a time.
The Government of Nova Scotia's alert includes advice on how to safely use remote-controlled equipment.
Read the full alerts:
Remotely Controlled Equipment - NS Dept of Environment and Labour, Occupational Health and Safety
Firefighter Collapses From Heat Stroke During Training
Correction: In the February Hazard Alert article, we erroneously used the term "pole choker ". Pole Choker™ is a registered trade mark of the J.E. Lortie Company, and refers to the product manufactured by J.E. Lortie. In no way did we intend to imply that the fall restricting device for wood pole climbing referenced in the hazard alert from Nova Scotia was manufactured by J.E. Lortie.
Mechanical ventilation removes contaminated air and replaces it with clean outside air. Ideally, each ventilation system should be designed specifically to match the type of work and the rate of contaminant release at the workplace.
Having the right ventilation system ensures there are acceptable levels of contaminants in the air as well as a continuous supply of fresh outside air. It also maintains temperature and humidity at comfortable levels, reduces the risk of fire or explosion, and removes or dilutes airborne contaminants, depending on the design. Ventilation is considered an engineering control, and is one of the preferred ways to control employee exposure to air contaminants.
For added safety, industrial facilities also can implement controls to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals or materials altogether, substitute with less toxic chemicals, or change the work practice or process to reduce harmful exposure.
Industrial settings usually require one of two main types of mechanical ventilation systems: dilution (general) or local exhaust.
Dilution ventilation reduces the concentration of the contaminant by mixing the contaminated air with clean, uncontaminated air. It supplies and exhausts large amounts of air to and from an area or building, usually with large exhaust fans placed in the walls or roof. Dilution ventilation works best if the exhaust fan is located close to exposed workers and the makeup air is located behind the worker so that contaminated air is drawn away from the worker's breathing zone.
Dilution should only be used in situations where there are fairly low toxic levels of pollutants, and where workers do not work in the immediate vicinity of the source of contamination.
Local exhaust ventilation captures contaminants at or very near the source (a bit like a household vacuum cleaner, with the vacuum head as close as possible to the dirt) and exhausts them outside. This is generally a far more effective way of controlling highly toxic contaminants before they reach a worker's breathing zone.
Use local exhaust ventilation where:
- Air contaminants pose a serious health or fire risk;
- Large amounts of dusts or fumes are generated;
- Increased heating costs from heating large volumes of air in cold weather are a concern;
- Emission sources are few in number; or
- Emission sources are near the worker's breathing zones.
It's important to realize that any ventilation system will have limitations. The systems deteriorate over the years and require ongoing maintenance and testing. It takes a qualified professional to make any modifications to a ventilation system.
For more detailed information on industrial ventilation, visit OSH Answers
Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs), otherwise known as ergonomic injuries or repetitive strain injuries (RSI), account for 40 percent of time lost in the workplace from injury. RSIs are a significant concern that costs Ontario's economy more than $19 billion over ten years. So it was welcomed news when the Ontario Ministry of Labour announced on International RSI Awareness Day (February 29th) that it had partnered with the other members of Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Council to develop two very practical MSD prevention resources: the Musculoskeletal Disorder (MSD) Prevention Toolbox and the Musculoskeletal Disorders Prevention Database.
These resources are free-of-charge and widely accessible. Anyone concerned with reducing the risk of MSDs, which are injuries of the muscles, nerves and tendons that develop over time in various occupations should take a look at them. They are the collaborative work of the Ministry of Labour, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, 12 industry-based Safe Workplace Associations, the Workers Health and Safety Centre, Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers and the Institute for Work and Health.
The Musculoskeletal Disorder (MSD) Prevention Toolbox is practical information on how to conduct an MSD risk assessment, how to set up an MSD prevention program and enhance current MSD prevention practices in the workplace. You'll find it listed on the MSD page on the WSIB's Prevention Practices Database.
The Toolbox contains three sections - "Getting Started", "Beyond the Basics" and "More On In-Depth Risk Assessment Methods".
The "Getting Started" portion contains introductory information on MSD prevention, how to recognize jobs that have MSD hazards, how to conduct a simple MSD risk assessment and how to identify and select hazard controls.
"Beyond the Basics" gets into more detail on how workplaces can enhance their current MSD prevention practices. The Toolkit also contains more advanced information, with an emphasis on how to do a risk assessment, in the "More On In-Depth Risk Assessment Methods" portion.
The Prevention Toolbox is the third part of the Council's MSD Prevention series. It follows the previously released MSD Prevention Guideline for Ontario, and the Resource Manual for the MSD Prevention Guideline for Ontario.
The second resource newly launched is the Musculoskeletal Disorders Prevention Database, created by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). It provides easy to read, widely accessible information on how to control MSDs in the workplace.
The online database can be accessed on the website, www.PreventionPractices.com/msd.html, which provides links to over 200 MSD prevention resources from Ontario's Health and Safety Associations, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, Ontario's Ministry of Labour and other organizations that form Ontario's health and safety system. Web users can browse the database for specific material based on a given workplace MSD topic or by a specific job. In addition, the database allows users to contribute their own prevention practice to share with others.
To develop these ergonomic resources, the Occupational Health and Safety Council of Ontario collaborated with labour organizations, employers' associations and individual employers and workers. The University of Waterloo's Centre of Research Expertise for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders (CRE-MSD) provided additional support.
Remembering lives lost or injured in the workplace on National Day of Mourning
In 2006, almost a thousand workers in Canada lost their lives to a disease or injury they incurred from work-related causes. 976 workplace deaths were recorded, and another 900,000 workers were injured or became ill. To honour those workers across the country whose lives have been lost, who have been injured or disabled on the job, or suffer from occupational diseases, April 28th has been set aside as the National Day of Mourning. The Day of Mourning is an opportunity not only to remember, but also for employees and employers to publicly renew their commitment to improve health and safety in the workplace.
This day of observance was established when the Workers Mourning Day Act was passed in December 1990. Since that time, various events are organized each year by labour organizations across the country to express remembrance for the family, friends and colleagues who have suffered in carrying out workplace duties. The Canadian flag on Parliament Hill will fly at half-mast. Workers will light candles, don ribbons and black armbands, and observe moments of silence.
CCOHS hopes that the annual observance of this day will strengthen the resolve to establish safe conditions in the workplace for all. It is as much a call to protect the living, as it is a day to remember the dead. To help you promote awareness of this important day and serve as a powerful reminder to reflect on the importance of safety in the workplace, CCOHS has designed a new double-sided (English/French), 16"x25" poster. You can request your FREE poster by contacting CCOHS Client Services at 1-800-668-4284. You can also order additional copies at a nominal cost.
The CCOHS website has more information about the National Day of Mourning.
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The Health and Safety Report, a free monthly newsletter produced by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), provides information, advice, and resources that help support a safe and healthy work environment and the total well being of workers.
© 2017, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
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