Going to Work without Laboring for Breath
How to Handle Asthma Hazards in the Workplace
The vast majority of the American workforce spends at least part of their day laboring indoors, where serious health dangers may be lurking in the air they breathe. According to the Occupational Health & Safety Administration, approximately 11 million workers, including those who are employed by offices, restaurants, and industrial facilities, are exposed to at last one or more substances in their workplace that could cause asthma symptoms.
Many of these workers have legitimate concerns about their workplace environment, as demonstrated by these common questions from callers to the American Lung Association’s Lung HelpLine:
⋄ “I cannot access the employee entrance at my work due to other employees and visitors smoking. What can I do?”
⋄ “I work in a small office, and a few coworkers wear so much perfume it chokes me and I have to use my rescue inhaler several times. How do I get them to realize they are making me sick?”
⋄ “I use a company vehicle that is shared with other employees, including some who smoke in the vehicle. This makes my asthma worse. How can I avoid this?”
⋄ “The building I work in had water damage, and now has a smell that makes me and a few other coworkers sick. We think it might be mold. What can we do?”
Having solid policies in
place to protect your lung health
can mean less time spent struggling for breath
and more time focusing on your job.
If you suspect your workplace has unhealthy air, follow these 3 important steps:
1 Let your supervisor and building management know there may be a problem. Follow the usual and proper steps to alert them, as you may need to document the steps you took later.
2 Tell your healthcare provider about your symptoms. Report the symptoms to your company’s health or safety officer. The state or local health department may also need to be informed. Ask the health or safety officer if you should do that yourself.
3 Work with management as they investigate the problem. The process may take longer than anyone wants because the underlying problems may be difficult to identify.
Your work environment shouldn’t cause your asthma to worsen. Whether you work in an office, store, restaurant, or factory, having solid policies in place to protect your lung health can mean less time spent struggling for breath and more time focusing on your job.
Even people who aren’t coping with asthma can have allergic sensitivities to perfumes and strong fragrances found in some cleaning products and air fresheners. And no one’s lungs are safe when having to inhale secondhand smoke.
Become a Polite Advocate
Your employer has a vested interest in your health and safety while on the clock. If your place of business doesn’t already have a smokefree or scent-free policy in place, talk with your immediate supervisor about your health concerns.
The American Lung Association has created a Guide for Controlling Asthma at Work (available at lung.org) to help adults living with asthma recognize if their workplace is making them sick. It also outlines steps you can follow to take control. Taking time to educate yourself about asthma and the components of a lung-friendly workplace will help you have a productive conversation with your supervisor as you advocate for better workplace health.
Signs of Potential Problems
Depending on the industry, workers may be at risk from exposure to tobacco smoke, carbon monoxide, allergens, bacteria, viruses, and chemicals that build up indoors. Workers may also be exposed to airborne contaminants on the job, such as dusts, welding fumes, gases, and solvent vapors and mists.
Some situations are emergencies. They include:
♦ Spills or releases of hazardous materials or flooding onto porous materials
♦ Sewage spills
♦ Gas leaks
♦ Sudden onset of headaches, nausea, dizziness, or drowsiness, which may signal carbon monoxide poisoning
♦ Widespread breathing difficulties
♦ Diagnosed tuberculosis or legionella
In those situations, take immediate steps to get people out of danger and limit harm. Notify and seek help from the appropriate emergency agency, such as the fire department, gas supplier, health department, or hazardous waste authority. Evacuate the area if necessary. And get medical help for people with symptoms.
One in twelve adults has asthma, and you’re not alone in your concerns. The American Lung Association’s Lung HelpLine can help provide advice on how to make your workday healthier and safer. Call 1-800-LUNG-USA (586-4872) for immediate help from a trained staff of respiratory therapists, counselors, and registered nurses. You can also submit a question online at lung.org.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, Fall/Winter 2015-2016.