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Workplace Health Alert: How to Avoid Respiratory Allergens and Occupational Asthma Risks

Workplace Health Alert: How to Avoid Respiratory Allergens and Occupational Asthma Risks

How to Avoid Respiratory Allergens and Occupational Asthma Risks

Respiratory sensitizers are chemicals that lead to hypersensitivity of the airways following inhalation.1

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sub-categorizes respiratory sensitizers within their Hazard Category based on weight of evidence on effects seen in either humans or study animals.

Sub-category 1A – Substances showing a high frequency of occurrence in humans; or a probability of occurrence of a high sensitization rate in humans based on animal or other tests.

Sub-category 1B – Substances showing a low to moderate frequency of occurrence in humans; or a probability of occurrence of a low to moderate sensitization rate in humans based on animal or other tests.

Respiratory sensitizers encountered in the workplace have been known to cause occupational asthma among affected workers.

Occupational Asthma

Occupational asthma, precipitated by airborne agents known as respiratory sensitizers, is an increasingly documented condition affecting workers across various industries. This alarming trend underscores the need for stringent indoor air-quality control and effective sensitivity prevention measures in the workplace to ensure the well-being of employees.

An estimated 11 million workers in a wide range of industries and occupations are exposed to at least one of the numerous agents known to be associated with occupational asthma. 2

Exposure to these agents will affect individual workers differently. Some workers may detect no side effects, some may find increased aggravation to existing allergies, and others may develop asthma-like symptoms for the very first time.

Identifying Respiratory Sensitizers:

Respiratory sensitizers are varied and may include chemicals, dust, fumes, and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Their presence in work environments — from manufacturing floors to painting booths — makes identifying and managing these agents crucial. Workers exposed without adequate ventilation or respiratory protection are at a heightened risk of developing sensitization, which can lead to occupational asthma.

A respiratory allergy is a hypersensitivity reaction of the upper and lower respiratory tract to a protein or chemical xenobiotic with side effects including wheezing, breathlessness, tightness in the chest, bronchoconstriction, and/or nasal congestion.3

While many workers find these symptoms to subside outside of work, they can range from mild irritation to life threatening.

In an article entitled A descriptive study of work aggravated asthma, the authors compared cases reported to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) from four state Sentinel Event Notification Systems for Occupational Risks (SENSOR) surveillance programs between 1993-1995 and found a total of 210 Work-Aggravated Asthma (WAA) cases and 891 New Onset Asthma (NOA) cases were reported.4

Mineral and inorganic dusts were cited as the most common exposure agent in WAA cases while diisocyanates exposure was more frequently reported in NOA cases. The services and manufacturing industrial categories together accounted for the majority of both WAA (62%) and NOA (75%) cases.

Respiratory Sensitizer Triggers

In occupational settings, respiratory allergy can be mediated by industrial compounds including high molecular weight (HMW) compounds, such as protein detergents, and low molecular weight (LMW) chemicals.3

 In a book entitled Allergic Hypersensitivities Induced by Chemicals: Recommendations for Prevention, it lists low molecular weight respiratory allergens (Table 6-1) that possess electrophilic functionalities such as diisocyanates and acid anhydrides; functionalities that lend itself to becoming potential respiratory sensitizers.

Many of these ingredients are found in common workplace applications such as enamel coatings, polyurethane foams, plasticizers, plastics, resins, pesticides, adhesives, disinfectants, and other industrial materials.

Long term exposure or acute short-term exposure to these ingredients via inhalation may lead to respiratory sensitization and even occupational asthma.

Without regulatory oversight, how can you protect yourself from respiratory sensitizers?

A good place to start is with a comprehensive industrial hygiene program that includes source capture, fume extraction, and air filtration.

Some chemicals emit sickening odors when heated or vaporized and should not be inhaled. Whether you are using raw chemicals or solvents and epoxies that are made up of multiple chemicals, have safety data sheets (SDS/MSDS) on hand to assess the respiratory hazards of each ingredient.

Working in a ventilated, filtered enclosure greatly reduces operator exposure to chemical fumes. If a hood or enclosure does not support the application, a source capture fume extractor is the next best option.

By placing the fume extractor close to the source of the emission, fumes and odors do not have a chance to escape into the surrounding room air.


Source Capture Fume Extraction

Fumeclear® provides high-quality air filtration solutions to customers who need to control chemical fumes. We welcome you to browse our website to learn more about our products.

We can also design and manufacture custom Fume Extractors according to customer needs. If you need, please contact us at

If your workplace or private studio requires source capture fume extraction, please contact one of our technical sales experts who will work with you to determine the best solution.

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