Work Environment May Trigger Asthma in Some Employees, New Research Suggests

A variety of exposures in the work environment can cause asthma in some employees, according to new research presented at ERS Virtual International Congress 2021.

A variety of exposures in the work environment can cause asthma in some employees, according to a new study presented at the European Respiratory Society (ERS) International Congress 2021, held virtually between September 5-8, 2021.

Causes of occupational asthma (OA) ranged from printer toner to poor building ventilation to mold circulating in air conditioning units, according to the study abstract.

“We usually think of an office as a safe environment, so it’s possible that when asthma is diagnosed in office workers, occupational causes may be overlooked. As a result, there has been very little research on this issue,” said lead author Christopher Huntley, MBChB, MRCP, respiratory registrar, occupational lung studies clinical research fellow, University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, United Kingdom, in an ERS press release. “However, we have been diagnosing increasing cases of occupational asthma in patients who work in office environments, as well as detecting clusters of cases in specific offices.”

To investigate further, Dr Huntley and colleagues reviewed cases referred to the Birmingham NHS Occupational Lung Disease Service—which has recorded all new occupational lung disease diagnoses since 2000—and identified 47 office workers with occupational asthma (OA). Demographic and clinical data were retrospectively collected from medical records.

Among the participants, 33 (70.2%) were women and the mean age was 47.9 years. Pre-existing asthma was identified in 11 (23%) participants. The majority (83%, n=35) of participants had OA diagnosis confirmed by serial peak flow monitoring and 17 (36%) participants had a positive methacholine challenge test.

Researchers identified 3 main categories that were causes of OA in the office workers:

  • Internal office environment (toner, floor adhesive, mold, cleaning agents) n=22, 50%
  • Office ventilation system (air conditioning mold, incorrect installation of ventilation shafts) n=11, 25%
  • External environment adjacent to office (workshop, paint, vehicle fumes) n=9, 20%

Researchers also examined whether employers made any workplace adjustments to support employees with OA and what employees did as a result. The team found that the odds of an employee quitting their job were 100-times higher if no workplace adjustments were made (odds ratio=101.3; 95% confidence interval, 10.4-990.3).

“Although we only looked at the patients who were referred to our service and this is a relatively small study, it is still one of the largest studies reporting occupational asthma in office workers. We discovered some key causes to be aware of in an office environment, but there will certainly be others,” added Dr Huntley in the press release.

Dr Huntley noted that he has observed fewer new referrals for patients with OA during the COVID-19 pandemic and these patients have seen improvements while working remotely.

“Working from home has been useful for patients in both establishing their diagnosis and as a form of non-pharmacological treatment. Allowing workers with occupational asthma to continue working from home may help keep office workers in their jobs as they require fewer sick days,” concluded Dr Huntley.


Reference: Huntley CC, Moore VC, Robertson AS, Burge PS, Walters GI. Occupational asthma in office workers: A cross-sectional study. ePoster #1904. Presented at: ERS Virtual International Congress 2021; September 6, 2021.