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Monday, 28 February 2011 21:32

Occupational Asthma

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Asthma is a respiratory disease characterized by airway obstruction that is partially or completely reversible, either spontaneously or with treatment; airway inflammation; and increased airway responsiveness to a variety of stimuli (NAEP 1991). Occupational asthma (OA) is asthma that is caused by environmental exposures in the workplace. Several hundred agents have been reported to cause OA. Pre-existing asthma or airway hyper-responsiveness, with symptoms worsened by work exposure to irritants or physical stimuli, is usually classified separately as work-aggravated asthma (WAA). There is general agreement that OA has become the most prevalent occupational lung disease in developed countries, although estimates of actual prevalence and incidence are quite variable. It is clear, however, that in many countries asthma of occupational aetiology causes a largely unrecognized burden of disease and disability with high economic and non-economic costs. Much of this public health and economic burden is potentially preventable by identifying and controlling or eliminating the workplace exposures causing the asthma. This article will summarize current approaches to recognition, management and prevention of OA. Several recent publications discuss these issues in more detail (Chan-Yeung 1995; Bernstein et al. 1993).

Magnitude of the Problem

Prevalences of asthma in adults generally range from 3 to 5%, depending on the definition of asthma and geographic variations, and may be considerably higher in some low-income urban populations. The proportion of adult asthma cases in the general population that is related to the work environment is reported to range from 2 to 23%, with recent estimates tending towards the higher end of the range. Prevalences of asthma and OA have been estimated in small cohort and cross-sectional studies of high-risk occupational groups. In a review of 22 selected studies of workplaces with exposures to specific substances, prevalences of asthma or OA, defined in various ways, ranged from 3 to 54%, with 12 studies reporting prevalences over 15% (Becklake, in Bernstein et al. 1993). The wide range reflects real variation in actual prevalence (due to different types and levels of exposure). It also reflects differences in diagnostic criteria, and variation in the strength of the biases, such as “survivor bias” which may result from exclusion of workers who developed OA and left the workplace before the study was conducted. Population estimates of incidence range from 14 per million employed adults per year in the United States to 140 per million employed adults per year in Finland (Meredith and Nordman 1996). Ascertainment of cases was more complete and methods of diagnosis were generally more rigorous in Finland. The evidence from these different sources is consistent in its implication that OA is often under-diagnosed and/or under-reported and is a public health problem of greater magnitude than generally recognized.

Causes of Occupational Asthma

Over 200 agents (specific substances, occupations or industrial processes) have been reported to cause OA, based on epidemiological and/or clinical evidence. In OA, airway inflammation and bronchoconstriction can be caused by immunological response to sensitizing agents, by direct irritant effects, or by other non-immunological mechanisms. Some agents (e.g., organophosphate insecticides) may also cause bronchoconstriction by direct pharmacological action. Most of the reported agents are thought to induce a sensitization response. Respiratory irritants often worsen symptoms in workers with pre-existing asthma (i.e., WAA) and, at high exposure levels, can cause new onset of asthma (termed reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS) or irritant-induced asthma) (Brooks, Weiss and Bernstein 1985; Alberts and Do Pico 1996).

OA may occur with or without a latency period. Latency period refers to the time between initial exposure and development of symptoms, and is highly variable. It is often less than 2 years, but in around 20% of cases is 10 years or longer. OA with latency is generally caused by sensitization to one or more agents. RADS is an example of OA without latency.

High molecular weight sensitizing agents (5,000 daltons (Da) or greater) often act by an IgE-dependent mechanism. Low molecular weight sensitizing agents (less than 5,000 Da), which include highly reactive chemicals like isocyanates, may act by IgE-independent mechanisms or may act as haptens, combining with body proteins. Once a worker becomes sensitized to an agent, re-exposure (frequently at levels far below the level that caused sensitization) results in an inflammatory response in the airways, often accompanied by increases in airflow limitation and non-specific bronchial responsiveness (NBR).

In epidemiological studies of OA, workplace exposures are consistently the strongest determinants of asthma prevalence, and the risk of developing OA with latency tends to increase with estimated intensity of exposure. Atopy is an important and smoking a somewhat less consistent determinant of asthma occurrence in studies of agents that act through an IgE-dependent mechanism. Neither atopy nor smoking appears to be an important determinant of asthma in studies of agents acting through IgE-independent mechanisms.

Clinical Presentation

The symptom spectrum of OA is similar to non-occupational asthma: wheeze, cough, chest tightness and shortness of breath. Patients sometimes present cough-variant or nocturnal asthma. OA can be severe and disabling, and deaths have been reported. Onset of OA occurs due to a specific job environment, so identifying exposures that occurred at the time of onset of asthmatic symptoms is key to an accurate diagnosis. In WAA, workplace exposures cause a significant increase in frequency and/or severity of symptoms of pre-existing asthma.

Several features of the clinical history may suggest occupational aetiology (Chan-Yeung 1995). Symptoms frequently worsen at work or at night after work, improve on days off, and recur on return to work. Symptoms may worsen progressively towards the end of the workweek. The patient may note specific activities or agents in the workplace that reproducibly trigger symptoms. Work-related eye irritation or rhinitis may be associated with asthmatic symptoms. These typical symptom patterns may be present only in the initial stages of OA. Partial or complete resolution on weekends or vacations is common early in the course of OA, but with repeated exposures, the time required for recovery may increase to one or two weeks, or recovery may cease to occur. The majority of patients with OA whose exposures are terminated continue to have symptomatic asthma even years after cessation of exposure, with permanent impairment and disability. Continuing exposure is associated with further worsening of asthma. Brief duration and mild severity of symptoms at the time of cessation of exposure are good prognostic factors and decrease the likelihood of permanent asthma.

Several characteristic temporal patterns of symptoms have been reported for OA. Early asthmatic reactions typically occur shortly (less than one hour) after beginning work or the specific work exposure causing the asthma. Late asthmatic reactions begin 4 to 6 hours after exposure begins, and can last 24 to 48 hours. Combinations of these patterns occur as dual asthmatic reactions with spontaneous resolution of symptoms separating an early and late reaction, or as continuous asthmatic reactions with no resolution of symptoms between phases. With exceptions, early reactions tend to be IgE mediated, and late reactions tend to be IgE independent.

Increased NBR, generally measured by methacholine or histamine challenge, is considered a cardinal feature of occupational asthma. The time course and degree of NBR may be useful in diagnosis and monitoring. NBR may decrease within several weeks after cessation of exposure, although abnormal NBR commonly persists for months or years after exposures are terminated. In individuals with irritant-induced occupational asthma, NBR is not expected to vary with exposure and/or symptoms.

Recognition and Diagnosis

Accurate diagnosis of OA is important, given the substantial negative consequences of either under- or over-diagnosis. In workers with OA or at risk of developing OA, timely recognition, identification and control of the occupational exposures causing the asthma improve the chances of prevention or complete recovery. This primary prevention can greatly reduce the high financial and human costs of chronic, disabling asthma. Conversely, since a diagnosis of OA may obligate a complete change of occupation, or costly interventions in the workplace, accurately distinguishing OA from asthma that is not occupational can prevent unnecessary social and financial costs to both employers and workers.

Several case definitions of OA have been proposed, appropriate in different circumstances. Definitions found valuable for worker screening or surveillance (Hoffman et al. 1990) may not be entirely applicable for clinical purposes or compensation. A consensus of researchers has defined OA as “a disease characterized by variable airflow limitation and/or airway hyper-responsiveness due to causes and conditions attributable to a particular occupational environment and not to stimuli encountered outside the workplace” (Bernstein et al. 1993). This definition has been operationalized as a medical case definition, summarized in table 1 (Chan-Yeung 1995).

Table 1. ACCP medical case definition of occupational asthma

Criteria for diagnosis of occupational asthma1 (requires all 4, A-D):

(A)        Physician diagnosis of asthma and/or physiological evidence of airways hyper-responsiveness

(B)        Occupational exposure preceded onset of asthmatic symptoms1

(C)        Association between symptoms of asthma and work

(D)        Exposure and/or physiological evidence of relation of asthma to workplace environment (Diagnosis of OA requires one or more of D2-D5, likely OA requires only D1)

(1)        Workplace exposure to agent reported to give rise to OA

(2)        Work-related changes in FEV1 and/or PEF

(3)        Work-related changes in serial testing for non-specific bronchial responsiveness (e.g., Methacholine Challenge Test)

(4)        Positive specific bronchial challenge test

(5)        Onset of asthma with a clear association with a symptomatic exposure to an inhaled irritant in the workplace (generally RADS)


Criteria for diagnosis of RADS (should meet all 7):

(1)        Documented absence of preexisting asthma-like complaints

(2)        Onset of symptoms after a single exposure incident or accident

(3)        Exposure to a gas, smoke, fume, vapour or dust with irritant properties present in high concentration

(4)        Onset of symptoms within 24 hours after exposure with persistence of symptoms for at least 3 months

(5)        Symptoms consistent with asthma: cough, wheeze, dyspnoea

(6)        Presence of airflow obstruction on pulmonary function tests and/or presence of non-specific bronchial hyper-responsiveness (testing should be done shortly after exposure)

(7)        Other pulmonary diseases ruled out


Criteria for diagnosis of work-aggravated asthma (WAA):

(1)        Meets criteria A and C of ACCP Medical Case Definition of OA

(2)        Pre-existing asthma or history of asthmatic symptoms, (with active symptoms during the year prior to start of employment or exposure of interest)

(3)        Clear increase in symptoms or medication requirement, or documentation of work-related changes in PEFR or FEV1 after start of employment or exposure of interest

1 A case definition requiring A, C and any one of D1 to D5 may be useful in surveillance for OA, WAA and RADS.
Source: Chan-Yeung 1995.


Thorough clinical evaluation of OA can be time consuming, costly and difficult. It may require diagnostic trials of removal from and return to work, and often requires the patient to reliably chart serial peak expiratory flow (PEF) measurements. Some components of the clinical evaluation (e.g., specific bronchial challenge or serial quantitative testing for NBR) may not be readily available to many physicians. Other components may simply not be achievable (e.g., patient no longer working, diagnostic resources not available, inadequate serial PEF measurements). Diagnostic accuracy is likely to increase with the thoroughness of the clinical evaluation. In each individual patient, decisions on the extent of medical evaluation will need to balance costs of the evaluation with the clinical, social, financial and public health consequences of incorrectly diagnosing or ruling out OA.

In consideration of these difficulties, a stepped approach to diagnosis of OA is outlined in table 2. This is intended as a general guide to facilitate accurate, practical and efficient diagnostic evaluation, recognizing that some of the suggested procedures may not be available in some settings. Diagnosis of OA involves establishing both the diagnosis of asthma and the relation between asthma and workplace exposures. After each step, for each patient, the physician will need to determine whether the level of diagnostic certainty achieved is adequate to support the necessary decisions, or whether evaluation should continue to the next step. If facilities and resources are available, the time and cost of continuing the clinical evaluation are usually justified by the importance of making an accurate determination of the relationship of asthma to work. Highlights of diagnostic procedures for OA will be summarized; details can be found in several of the references (Chan-Yeung 1995; Bernstein et al. 1993). Consultation with a physician experienced in OA may be considered, since the diagnostic process may be difficult.


Table 2. Steps in diagnostic evaluation of asthma in the workplace


Step 1 Thorough medical and occupational history and directed physical examination.

Step 2 Physiologic evaluation for reversible airway obstruction and/or non specific bronchial hyper-responsiveness.

Step 3 Immunologic assessment, if appropriate.

Assess Work Status:

Currently working: Proceed to Step 4 first.
Not currently working, diagnostic trial of return to work feasible: Step 5 first, then Step 4.
Not currently working, diagnostic trial of return to work not feasible: Step 6.

Step 4 Clinical evaluation of asthma at work or diagnostic trial of return to work.

Step 5 Clinical evaluation of asthma away from work or diagnostic trial of removal from work.

Step 6 Workplace challenge or specific bronchial challenge testing. If available for suspected causal exposures, this step may be performed prior to Step 4 for any patient.

This is intended as a general guide to facilitate practical and efficient diagnostic evaluation. It is recommended that physicians who diagnose and manage OA refer to current clinical literature as well.



RADS, when caused by an occupational exposure, is usually considered a subclass of OA. It is diagnosed clinically, using the criteria in Table 6. Patients who have experienced significant respiratory injury due to high-level irritant inhalations should be evaluated for persistent symptoms and presence of airflow obstruction shortly after the event. If the clinical history is compatible with RADS, further evaluation should include quantitative testing for NBR, if not contra-indicated.

WAA may be common, and may cause a substantial preventable burden of disability, but little has been published on diagnosis, management or prognosis. As summarized in Table 6, WAA is recognized when asthmatic symptoms preceded the suspected causal exposure but are clearly aggravated by the work environment. Worsening at work can be documented either by physiological evidence or through evaluation of medical records and medication use. It is a clinical judgement whether patients with a history of asthma in remission, who have recurrence of asthmatic symptoms that otherwise meet the criteria for OA, are diagnosed with OA or WAA. One year has been proposed as a sufficiently long asymptomatic period that the onset of symptoms is likely to represent a new process caused by the workplace exposure, although no consensus yet exists.

Step 1: Thorough medical and occupational history anddirected physical examination

Initial suspicion of possible OA in appropriate clinical and workplace situations is key, given the importance of early diagnosis and intervention in improving prognosis. The diagnosis of OA or WAA should be considered in all asthmatic patients in whom symptoms developed as a working adult (especially recent onset), or in whom the severity of asthma has substantially increased. OA should also be considered in any other individuals who have asthma-like symptoms and work in occupations in which they are exposed to asthma-causing agents or who are concerned that their symptoms are work-related.

Patients with possible OA should be asked to provide a thorough medical and occupational/environmental history, with careful documentation of the nature and date of onset of symptoms and diagnosis of asthma, and any potentially causal exposures at that time. Compatibility of the medical history with the clinical presentation of OA described above should be evaluated, especially the temporal pattern of symptoms in relation to work schedule and changes in work exposures. Patterns and changes in patterns of use of asthma medications, and the minimum period of time away from work required for improvement in symptoms should be noted. Prior respiratory diseases, allergies/atopy, smoking and other toxic exposures, and a family history of allergy are pertinent.

Occupational and other environmental exposures to potential asthma-causing agents or processes should be thoroughly explored, with objective documentation of exposures if possible. Suspected exposures should be compared with a comprehensive list of agents reported to cause OA (Harber, Schenker and Balmes 1996; Chan-Yeung and Malo 1994; Bernstein et al. 1993; Rom 1992b), although inability to identify specific agents is not uncommon and induction of asthma by agents not previously described is possible as well. Some illustrative examples are shown in table 3. Occupational history should include details of current and relevant past employment with dates, job titles, tasks and exposures, especially current job and job held at time of onset of symptoms. Other environmental history should include a review of exposures in the home or community that could cause asthma. It is helpful to begin the exposure history in an open-ended way, asking about broad categories of airborne agents: dusts (especially organic dusts of animal, plant or microbial origin), chemicals, pharmaceuticals and irritating or visible gases or fumes. The patient may identify specific agents, work processes or generic categories of agents that have triggered symptoms. Asking the patient to describe step by step the activities and exposures involved in the most recent symptomatic workday can provide useful clues. Materials used by co-workers, or those released in high concentration from a spill or other source, may be relevant. Further information can often be obtained on product name, ingredients and manufacturer name, address and phone number. Specific agents can be identified by calling the manufacturer or through a variety of other sources including textbooks, CD ROM databases, or Poison Control Centers. Since OA is frequently caused by low levels of airborne allergens, workplace industrial hygiene inspections which qualitatively evaluate exposures and control measures are often more helpful than quantitative measurement of air contaminants.

Table 3. Sensitizing agents that can cause occupational asthma



Examples of substances

Examples of jobs and industries

High-molecular-weight protein antigens

Animal-derived substances

Plant-derived substances

Laboratory animals, crab/seafood, mites, insects

Flour and grain dusts, natural rubber latex gloves, bacterial enzymes, castor bean dust, vegetable gums

Animal handlers, farming and food processing

Bakeries, health care workers, detergent making, food processing


Plasticizers, 2-part paints, adhesives, foams


Wood dusts

Pharmaceuticals, drugs

Isocyanates, acid anhydrides, amines

Platinum salts, cobalt

Cedar (plicatic acid), oak

Psyllium, antibiotics

Auto spray painting, varnishing, woodworking

Platinum refineries, metal grinding

Sawmill work, carpentry

Pharmaceutical manufacturing and packaging

Other chemicals


Chloramine T, polyvinyl chloride fumes, organophosphate insecticides

Janitorial work, meat packing


The clinical history appears to be better for excluding rather than for confirming the diagnosis of OA, and an open-ended history taken by a physician is better than a closed questionnaire. One study compared the results of an open-ended clinical history taken by trained OA specialists with a “gold standard” of specific bronchial challenge testing in 162 patients referred for evaluation of possible OA. The investigators reported that the sensitivity of a clinical history suggestive of OA was 87%, specificity 55%, predictive value positive 63% and predictive value negative 83%. In this group of referred patients, prevalence of asthma and OA were 80% and 46%, respectively (Malo et al. 1991). In other groups of referred patients, predictive values positive of a closed questionnaire ranged from 8 to 52% for a variety of workplace exposures (Bernstein et al. 1993). The applicability of these results to other settings needs to be assessed by the physician.

Physical examination is sometimes helpful, and findings relevant to asthma (e.g., wheezing, nasal polyps, eczematous dermatitis), respiratory irritation or allergy (e.g., rhinitis, conjunctivitis) or other potential causes of symptoms should be noted.

Step 2: Physiological evaluation for reversible airway obstruction and/or non-specific bronchial hyper-responsiveness

If sufficient physiological evidence supporting the diagnosis of asthma (NAEP 1991) is already in the medical record, Step 2 can be skipped. If not, technician-coached spirometry should be performed, preferably post-workshift on a day when the patient is experiencing asthmatic symptoms. If spirometry reveals airway obstruction which reverses with a bronchodilator, this confirms the diagnosis of asthma. In patients without clear evidence of airflow limitation on spirometry, quantitative testing for NBR using methacholine or histamine should be done, the same day if possible. Quantitative testing for NBR in this situation is a key procedure for two reasons. First, it can often identify patients with mild or early stage OA who have the greatest potential for cure but who would be missed if testing stopped with normal spirometry. Second, if NBR is normal in a worker who has ongoing exposure in the workplace environment associated with the symptoms, OA can generally be ruled out without further testing. If abnormal, evaluation can proceed to Step 3 or 4, and the degree of NBR may be useful in monitoring the patient for improvement after diagnostic trial of removal from the suspected causal exposure (Step 5). If spirometry reveals significant airflow limitation that does not improve after inhaled bronchodilator, a re-evaluation after more prolonged trial of therapy, including corticosteroids, should be considered (ATS 1995; NAEP 1991).

Step 3: Immunological assessment, if appropriate

Skin or serological (e.g., RAST) testing can demonstrate immunological sensitization to a specific workplace agent. These immunological tests have been used to confirm the work-relatedness of asthma, and, in some cases, eliminate the need for specific inhalation challenge tests. For example, among psyllium-exposed patients with a clinical history compatible with OA, documented asthma or airway hyper-responsiveness, and evidence of immunological sensitization to psyllium, approximately 80% had OA confirmed on subsequent specific bronchial challenge testing (Malo et al. 1990). In most cases, diagnostic significance of negative immunological tests is less clear. The diagnostic sensitivity of the immunological tests depends critically on whether all the likely causal antigens in the workplace or hapten-protein complexes have been included in the testing. Although the implication of sensitization for an asymptomatic worker is not well defined, analysis of grouped results can be useful in evaluating environmental controls. The utility of immunological evaluation is greatest for agents for which there are standardized in vitro tests or skin-prick reagents, such as platinum salts and detergent enzymes. Unfortunately, most occupational allergens of interest are not currently available commercially. The use of non-commercial solutions in skin-prick testing has on occasions been associated with severe reactions, including anaphylaxis, and thus caution is necessary.

If results of Steps 1 and 2 are compatible with OA, further evaluation should be pursued if possible. The order and extent of further evaluation depends on availability of diagnostic resources, work status of the patient and feasibility of diagnostic trials of removal from and return to work as indicated in Table 7. If further evaluation is not possible, a diagnosis must be based on the information available at this point.

Step 4: Clinical evaluation of asthma at work, or diagnostic trial of return to work

Often the most readily available physiological test of airway obstruction is spirometry. To improve reproducibility, spirometry should be coached by a trained technician. Unfortunately, single-day cross-shift spirometry, performed before and after the workshift, is neither sensitive nor specific in determining work-associated airway obstruction. It is probable that if multiple spirometries are performed each day during and after several workdays, the diagnostic accuracy may be improved, but this has not yet been adequately evaluated.

Due to difficulties with cross-shift spirometry, serial PEF measurement has become an important diagnostic technique for OA. Using an inexpensive portable meter, PEF measurements are recorded every two hours, during waking hours. To improve sensitivity, measurements must be done during a period when the worker is exposed to the suspected causal agents at work and is experiencing a work-related pattern of symptoms. Three repetitions are performed at each time, and measurements are made every day at work and away from work. The measurements should be continued for at least 16 consecutive days (e.g., two five-day work weeks and 3 weekends off) if the patient can safely tolerate continuing to work. PEF measurements are recorded in a diary along with notation of work hours, symptoms, use of bronchodilator medications, and significant exposures. To facilitate interpretation, the diary results should then be plotted graphically. Certain patterns suggest OA, but none are pathognomonic, and interpretation by an experienced reader is often helpful. Advantages of serial PEF testing are low cost and reasonable correlation with results of bronchial challenge testing. Disadvantages include the significant degree of patient cooperation required, inability to definitely confirm that data are accurate, lack of standardized method of interpretation, and the need for some patients to take 1 or 2 consecutive weeks off work to show significant improvement. Portable electronic recording spirometers designed for patient self monitoring, when available, can address some of the disadvantages of serial PEF.

Asthma medications tend to reduce the effect of work exposures on measures of airflow. However, it is not advisable to discontinue medications during airflow monitoring at work. Rather, the patient should be maintained on a constant minimal safe dosage of anti-inflammatory medications throughout the entire diagnostic process, with close monitoring of symptoms and airflow, and the use of short-acting bronchodilators to control symptoms should be noted in the diary.

The failure to observe work-related changes in PEF while a patient is working routine hours does not exclude the diagnosis of OA, since many patients will require more than a two-day weekend to show significant improvement in PEF. In this case, a diagnostic trial of extended removal from work (Step 5) should be considered. If the patient has not yet had quantitative testing for NBR, and does not have a medical contra-indication, it should be done at this time, immediately after at least two weeks of workplace exposure.

Step 5: Clinical evaluation of asthma away from work or diagnostic trial of extended removal from work

This step consists of completion of the serial 2-hourly PEF daily diary for at least 9 consecutive days away from work (e.g., 5 days off work plus weekends before and after). If this record, compared with the serial PEF diary at work, is not sufficient for diagnosing OA, it should be continued for a second consecutive week away from work. After 2 or more weeks away from work, quantitative testing for NBR can be performed and compared to NBR while at work. If serial PEF has not yet been done during at least two weeks at work, then a diagnostic trial of return to work (see Step 4) may be performed, after detailed counselling, and in close contact with the treating physician. Step 5 is often critically important in confirming or excluding the diagnosis of OA, although it may also be the most difficult and expensive step. If an extended removal from work is attempted, it is best to maximize the diagnostic yield and efficiency by including PEF, FEV1, and NBR tests in one comprehensive evaluation. Weekly physician visits for counselling and to review the PEF chart can help to assure complete and accurate results. If, after monitoring the patient for at least two weeks at work and two weeks away from it, the diagnostic evidence is not yet sufficient, Step 6 should be considered next, if available and feasible.

Step 6: Specific bronchial challenge or workplace challenge testing

Specific bronchial challenge testing using an exposure chamber and standardized exposure levels has been labelled the “gold standard” for diagnosis of OA. Advantages include definitive confirmation of OA with ability to identify asthmatic response to sub-irritant levels of specific sensitizing agents, which can then be scrupulously avoided. Of all the diagnostic methods, it is the only one that can reliably distinguish sensitizer-induced asthma from provocation by irritants. Several problems with this approach have included inherent costliness of the procedure, general requirement of close observation or hospitalization for several days, and availability in only very few specialized centres. False negatives may occur if standardized methodology is not available for all suspected agents, if the wrong agents are suspected, or if too long a time has elapsed between last exposure and testing. False positives may result if irritant levels of exposure are inadvertently obtained. For these reasons, specific bronchial challenge testing for OA remains a research procedure in most localities.

Workplace challenge testing involves serial technician-coached spirometry in the workplace, performed at frequent (e.g., hourly) intervals before and during the course of a workday exposure to the suspected causal agents or processes. It may be more sensitive than specific bronchial challenge testing because it involves “real life” exposures, but since airway obstruction may be triggered by irritants as well as sensitizing agents, positive tests do not necessarily indicate sensitization. It also requires cooperation of the employer and much technician time with a mobile spirometer. Both of these procedures carry some risk of precipitating a severe asthmatic attack, and should therefore be done under close supervision of specialists experienced with the procedures.

Treatment and Prevention

Management of OA includes medical and preventive interventions for individual patients, as well as public health measures in workplaces identified as high risk for OA. Medical management is similar to that for non-occupational asthma and is well reviewed elsewhere (NAEP 1991). Medical management alone is rarely adequate to optimally control symptoms, and preventive intervention by control or cessation of exposure is an integral part of the treatment. This process begins with accurate diagnosis and identification of causative exposures and conditions. In sensitizer-induced OA, reducing exposure to the sensitizer does not usually result in complete resolution of symptoms. Severe asthmatic episodes or progressive worsening of the disease may be caused by exposures to very low concentrations of the agent and complete and permanent cessation of exposure is recommended. Timely referral for vocational rehabilitation and job retraining may be a necessary component of treatment for some patients. If complete cessation of exposure is impossible, substantial reduction of exposure accompanied by close medical monitoring and management may be an option, although such reduction in exposure is not always feasible and the long-term safety of this approach has not been tested. As an example, it would be difficult to justify the toxicity of long-term treatment with systemic corticosteroids in order to allow the patient to continue in the same employment. For asthma induced and/or triggered by irritants, dose response may be more predictable, and lowering of irritant exposure levels, accompanied by close medical monitoring, may be less risky and more likely to be effective than for sensitizer-induced OA. If the patient continues to work under modified conditions, medical follow-up should include frequent physician visits with review of the PEF diary, well-planned access to emergency services, and serial spirometry and/or methacholine challenge testing, as appropriate.

Once a particular workplace is suspected to be high risk, due either to occurrence of a sentinel case of OA or use of known asthma-causing agents, public health methods can be very useful. Early recognition and effective treatment and prevention of disability of workers with existing OA, and prevention of new cases, are clear priorities. Identification of specific causal agent(s) and work processes is important. One practical initial approach is a workplace questionnaire survey, evaluating criteria A, B, C, and D1 or D5 in the case definition of OA. This approach can identify individuals for whom further clinical evaluation might be indicated and help identify possible causal agents or circumstances. Evaluation of group results can help decide whether further workplace investigation or intervention is indicated and, if so, provide valuable guidance in targeting future prevention efforts in the most effective and efficient manner. A questionnaire survey is not adequate, however, to establish individual medical diagnoses, since predictive positive values of questionnaires for OA are not high enough. If a greater level of diagnostic certainty is needed, medical screening utilizing diagnostic procedures such as spirometry, quantitative testing for NBR, serial PEF recording, and immunological testing can be considered as well. In known problem workplaces, ongoing surveillance and screening programmes may be helpful. However, differential exclusion of asymptomatic workers with history of atopy or other potential susceptibility factors from workplaces believed to be high risk would result in removal of large numbers of workers to prevent relatively few cases of OA, and is not supported by the current literature.

Control or elimination of causal exposures and avoidance and proper management of spills or episodes of high-level exposures can lead to effective primary prevention of sensitization and OA in co-workers of the sentinel case. The usual exposure control hierarchy of substitution, engineering and administrative controls, and personal protective equipment, as well as education of workers and managers, should be implemented as appropriate. Proactive employers will initiate or participate in some or all of these approaches, but in the event that inadequate preventive action is taken and workers remain at high risk, governmental enforcement agencies may be helpful.

Impairment and Disability

Medical impairment is a functional abnormality resulting from a medical condition. Disability refers to the total effect of the medical impairment on the patient’s life, and is influenced by many non-medical factors such as age and socio-economic status (ATS 1995).

Assessment of medical impairment is done by the physician and may include a calculated impairment index, as well as other clinical considerations. The impairment index is based on (1) degree of airflow limitation after bronchodilator, (2) either degree of reversibility of airflow limitation with bronchodilator or degree of airway hyper-responsiveness on quantitative testing for NBR, and (3) minimum medication required to control asthma. The other major component of the assessment of medical impairment is the physician’s medical judgement of the ability of the patient to work in the workplace environment causing the asthma. For example, a patient with sensitizer-induced OA may have a medical impairment which is highly specific to the agent to which he or she has become sensitized. The worker who experiences symptoms only when exposed to this agent may be able to work in other jobs, but permanently unable to work in the specific job for which she or he has the most training and experience.

Assessment of disability due to asthma (including OA) requires consideration of medical impairment as well as other non-medical factors affecting ability to work and function in everyday life. Disability assessment is initially made by the physician, who should identify all the factors affecting the impact of the impairment on the patient’s life. Many factors such as occupation, educational level, possession of other marketable skills, economic conditions and other social factors may lead to varying levels of disability in individuals with the same level of medical impairment. This information can then be used by administrators to determine disability for purposes of compensation.

Impairment and disability may be classified as temporary or permanent, depending on the likelihood of significant improvement, and whether effective exposure controls are successfully implemented in the workplace. For example, an individual with sensitizer-induced OA is generally considered permanently, totally impaired for any job involving exposure to the causal agent. If the symptoms resolve partially or completely after cessation of exposure, these individuals may be classified with less or no impairment for other jobs. Often this is considered permanent partial impairment/disability, but terminology may vary. An individual with asthma which is triggered in a dose-dependent fashion by irritants in the workplace would be considered to have temporary impairment while symptomatic, and less or no impairment if adequate exposure controls are installed and are effective in reducing or eliminating symptoms. If effective exposure controls are not implemented, the same individual might have to be considered permanently impaired to work in that job, with recommendation for medical removal. If necessary, repeated assessment for long-term impairment/disability may be carried out two years after the exposure is reduced or terminated, when improvement of OA would be expected to have plateaued. If the patient continues to work, medical monitoring should be ongoing and reassessment of impairment/disability should be repeated as needed.

Workers who become disabled by OA or WAA may qualify for financial compensation for medical expenses and/or lost wages. In addition to directly reducing the financial impact of the disability on individual workers and their families, compensation may be necessary to provide proper medical treatment, initiate preventive intervention and obtain vocational rehabilitation. The worker’s and physician’s understanding of specific medico-legal issues may be important to ensuring that the diagnostic evaluation meets local requirements and does not result in compromise of the rights of the affected worker.

Although discussions of cost savings frequently focus on the inadequacy of compensation systems, genuinely reducing the financial and public health burden placed on society by OA and WAA will depend not only on improvements in compensation systems but, more importantly, on effectiveness of the systems deployed to identify and rectify, or prevent entirely, workplace exposures that are causing onset of new cases of asthma.


OA has become the most prevalent occupational respiratory disease in many countries. It is more common than generally recognized, can be severe and disabling, and is generally preventable. Early recognition and effective preventive interventions can substantially reduce the risk of permanent disability and the high human and financial costs associated with chronic asthma. For many reasons, OA merits more widespread attention among clinicians, health and safety specialists, researchers, health policy makers, industrial hygienists, and others interested in prevention of work-related diseases.



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