How the Workplace Can Impact Respiratory Health


A recent study examined the effects that different work environments can have on adults with asthma.

The air people breathe, the environment they exist in on a day-to-day basis, and the materials they inhaleall impact the respiratory system. A new study1 published in BMC Pulmonary Medicineexamined how specific jobs impact health.Nearly 500 adults with newly diagnosed asthmawith a range of different jobs, including hairdressers, metal workers, physicians, waiters, and more,participatedin the study.

The study included working-age adults from the Finnish Environment and Asthma Study. Blue collar workers experienced respiratory dangers while on the job. Metal workers, for example, “showed significantly increased risk of lower respiratory tract infections and borderline significantly increased risk of upper respiratory tract infections,” according to the researchers. 

In comparison, officework posed fewer risks than other types of jobs. The researchers determined that while sharing an office can increase the prevalence of person-to-persontransmission of respiratory illness—due to individuals spending a majority of their time in close quarters with others—overall, “office work environment is considered to include less risk factors for respiratory healthcompared to many other occupations.”

Hairdressersand fur and leather workers experienced increased risks of tonsillitis and sinusitis, and the study theorized that use of chemicals could be attributable to those numbers.If a worker is regularly in a small area with inadequate ventilation—such as a small office or the basement of a building—they are likely to be at a higher risk of disease, as well.

“Increased risk of acute bronchitis was detected in occupations where workers often work in small workshops, in which they may work close to each other and where the ventilation may sometimes be insufficient,” the authors explained. “In addition, their work seemed to include handling of chemicals, such as glues among leather workers, or irritating substances, such as mineral fibers.”

Workers who moved around often—such as foresters—were at increased risk of catching the common cold, perhaps because of their exposure to multiple climates in a short period of time.

While it’s hard to draw broader conclusions on how to help workers protect their respiratory health when the risks involved in different jobs vary so drastically, some common threads were found throughout different fields of work.

Cramped, poorly ventilated spaces are often hard to avoid, especially for small and independent businesses. For employees working in manufacturing or metal working or construction, avoiding the fumes and low-quality air around them will be nearly impossible as well. For health care workers, there is no way to avoid the person-to-person contact that is the foundation of their occupation. 

“Better understanding of the phenomena underlying these work-related risks would be useful for future prevention,” the authors concluded. “Identifying the risk occupations for spreading of respiratory infections is useful for planning preventive strategies.”

1. Jaakkola MS, Lajunen TK, Rantala AK, Nadif R, Jaakkola JJK. Occupation and occurrence of respiratory infections among adults with newly diagnosed asthma. BMC Pulm Med. 2023;23(1):140.doi:10.1186/s12890-023-02413-8. PMID: 37098524; PMCID: PMC10127176.
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