Does Your Work Make You Sick?

Asthma risk higher in certain workplaces

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Many jobs come with monthly sick days. What if you have to use those days because it's your job that's making you sick?

A recent study found that 16 percent of adult-onset asthma was associated with substances that people have been exposed to in their workplaces.

Researchers in the United Kingdom studied over 11,000 people during a 45-year period. They found that lung health was affected by the kind of work people did during their lives.

Eighteen jobs in particular were determined to be the highest risk. Many of those involved cleaning products.

"Consult your physician if you have breathing problems."

Rebecca Ghosh, PhD, of the MRC-HPA Centre for Environment and Health at Imperial College London, and colleagues wanted to find out if some jobs were linked to a higher risk of adult-onset asthma.

In order to carry out the study, the researchers used data from another study in the UK called The National Child Development Study. 

That study included over 11,000 people in Great Britain that had been born in March of 1958. As the study went on, 920 immigrants that had been born outside the UK but born at the same time were added.

In order to obtain information about lung health, interviews with the study participants or their parents were conducted at ages 7, 11, 16, 33 and 42 years. Questions were asked about experience with asthma or wheezy bronchitis up to that point in their life.

Physical tests were also performed. At age 44 to 45 years, the researchers performed lung function tests where participants would blow into a machine that measured their lung volume and breath force. Blood samples were taken to record dust, cat and grass allergies.

Job information was also collected during the study. When participants were at ages 33 and 42, they were asked to list each job they had worked at up to that point.

To qualify for the list, each job must have lasted more than one month, including part time and temporary work. Education, training programs, childcare or extended sickness or disability periods were not included. 

Researchers used a standardized reference tool called the Asthma Specific Job Exposure Matrix (ASJEM) to determine how much workplace exposure to asthma-causing agents the study participants would have experienced during their time at each of their jobs.

The ASJEM identifies 18 high-risk substances that people could be exposed to at various jobs. These substances have all been shown to potentially contribute to the development of asthma.

Workplaces that have these substances are described as “high risk.” Workplaces that don’t have any of these 18 substances are described as “low risk.”

Cleaning products, flour, enzymes, metals, and textiles were among the workplace substances that were associated with asthma risk.

Through their analysis, the researchers determined that 18 occupations were clearly linked with asthma risk because of the presence of the high risk substances. Seven of these jobs involved exposure to cleaning products, including three jobs that weren’t specifically janitorial jobs but still involved cleaning products.  

Occupations that were associated with a higher risk for developing asthma were hand launderers, messengers, package and luggage delivery people, factory workers, sewing machine repair people and hairdressers.

Some occupations were associated with a particularly higher risk. Farmers were over four times more likely to develop asthma as an adult than people who worked in offices.

Aircraft mechanics were almost four times more likely to develop adult-onset asthma. Those working as typesetters or other jobs in printing shops were over three times more likely to develop asthma as adults.

Doorkeepers or watch people and those in manufacturing jobs were two and a half times more likely to develop asthma as an adult than people who worked in offices.

“We have shown that occupations and exposures related to cleaning and other irritant exposures are consistently associated with an increased risk of adult onset asthma and that, overall, occupational exposure accounts for an estimated 16 percent of disease,” the authors wrote.  

Even though high-risk exposures can lead to adult-onset asthma, there is insufficient awareness of these work-related risks.

"Occupational asthma is widely under-recognized by employers, employees and healthcare professionals,” said Dr. Ghosh.

“Raising awareness that this is an almost entirely preventable disease would be a major step in reducing its incidence," she said.

The study was published January 21 in the journal Thorax.

None of the authors reported conflicts of interest. The research was funded by Asthma UK and the COLT Foundation.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 24, 2013
Last Updated:
August 19, 2013