New research presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress suggests that the seemingly harmless environment of an office may cause asthma in some workers.
The study found a variety of triggers, from printer toner and cleaning products to poor ventilation and mold circulation in the air conditioner. It also found that employees with asthma due to office work quit their jobs, and this is more common if employers don’t make changes to address the problem.
The researchers say their work provides another reason to allow work from home to continue beyond COVID-19 restrictions to benefit the health of office workers and help businesses retain staff.
The study was presented by Dr Christopher Huntley, Birmingham Regional Occupational Lung Disease Service at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, UK. “Any work environment can cause occupational asthma if it contains a respiratory sensitizer. It’s a substance that triggers an irreversible allergic reaction, such as paint spray or dust. We often think of an office as a safe environment, so it’s possible when asthma is diagnosed in office workers.” Occupational causes may be overlooked, so little research has been done on this topic.
However, in addition to diagnosing increased cases of occupational asthma in patients working in office settings, we are detecting clusters of cases in specific offices.”
Dr Christopher Huntley, Birmingham Regional Occupational Lung Disease Service, University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust
Dr Huntley and colleagues studied 47 cases of office workers with occupational asthma reported to the Birmingham Regional Occupational Lung Disease Service. The asthma of the majority was confirmed by serial peak flow monitoring. This measures the fastest rate at which patients can breathe air from their lungs. All 17 of the patients were tested and found to have strongly responsive lungs to a test for sensitive airways.
Researchers identified three main categories of causes of occupational asthma in office workers. These are: triggers found in the office (printer toner, floor tile adhesive, mold and cleaning products), triggers from the office ventilation system (misassembled air conditioner and mold in vents), and office immediate triggers. environment (nearby workshops, paint and vehicle fumes).
They also investigated whether employers had made any arrangements to support office workers with occupational asthma and what workers did as a result. Their most striking finding was that workers were 100 times more likely to quit when employers did not act.
Dr Huntley said: “Although we only looked at patients referred to our ward and this was a relatively small study, it is one of the largest studies to report occupational asthma in office workers. We discovered some important reasons to be aware of in an office setting, but there will certainly be others.
“If a worker develops occupational asthma, workplace adjustments can and should be made to improve asthma symptoms and help staff retention.”
Dr Huntley says there have been fewer new referrals for patients with occupational asthma during the COVID-19 restrictions, and those who already suffer from occupational asthma have seen improvements while working from home. He adds: “Working from home has been beneficial for patients, both in making a diagnosis and as a non-pharmacological form of treatment. Allowing workers with occupational asthma to continue working from home can help office workers stay at work because they have to be sick for fewer days.”
Arzu Yorgancıoğlu, who was not involved in the research, is the President of the European Respiratory Society Advocacy Council and Professor of Chest Diseases at Celal Bayar University. He said: “As we tend to think of office environments as relatively safe compared to other occupational environments where exposure to pollutants can occur, there are likely to be more patients with office work-related undiagnosed asthma.
“For office workers with asthma who experience an unexplained worsening of their symptoms, this study highlights the importance of identifying and eliminating potential occupational triggers. When we see clusters of work-related asthma in offices, it is vital to investigate the underlying cause. Their causes can be surprising.”
European Respiratory Society