One of the most common health and safety questions from NYSUT members is: "Can the environment at work make me sick?" The answer is "yes" and this health condition should be taken seriously by the local union and by management.
What in the building can make me sick?
There are several ways you can get sick from exposure to indoor air at work. One group of conditions results from exposure to a group of substances or other agents that are known to cause disease. These include infectious agents such as viruses or the agent that causes Legionnaire's Disease (a type of pneumonia), chemicals used in the building or molds growing within the building. These substances can cause runny nose, asthma and asthma incidents, eye irritation, skin rashes and infectious disease. These are building-related illnesses.
A different type of disease occurs when a group of workers who share the same space at work begin to complain of similar symptoms. These include itching; dryness or watery secretions of the eyes, nose or throat; dry skin; headache; and fatigue. These symptoms typically occur while working and improve after a few hours away from the job site. This is called sick-building syndrome.
Although no specific cause has been found, several factors have been linked to sick-building syndrome and other health symptoms, particularly for people with allergies or other sensitivities and health problems. These include paper dust, office dust, use of many computers at the same time, renovation or remodeling materials, adhesives, high indoor temperatures, low fresh-air ventilation, poor lighting, poor cleaning and water damage.
Allergens can also cause problems for people with allergic backgrounds. Dust mites, fungal (mold) spores, isocyanates (urethane), anhydrides (epoxy resins), natural resins (timber), enzymes (biologic detergents), insect and animal products are allergens.
A complete clinical history with information about patients' work and home environments, timing of symptoms, co-workers and other causes of disease is central in making the diagnosis. An evaluation of the workplace is very important and should include a walk-through and measuring of temperature, humidity and levels of carbon dioxide. However, tests frequently show acceptable levels. There are no blood or urine tests to diagnose sick-building syndrome.
What can be done?
There are no known long-term adverse health effects of sick-building syndrome. Removing the individual and corrective action for the building should result in improvement. Increasing the general ventilation levels, resulting in more air changes per hour, and cleaning the building better so that less dirt gets into the air, will often cure sick building syndrome-related symptoms even when no specific cause is found.
Unfortunately, many NYSUT members will develop asthma during their working career. Nationally, teachers and cleaners have higher rates of occupational asthma than most other occupations.
What is asthma?
Asthma is an inflammatory disease of the lungs that causes swelling and narrowing of the windpipe and difficulty moving air in and out of the lungs. Asthma causes difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and phlegm. It can appear suddenly or develop slowly over time. Asthma can be life-threatening and cause death.
Can work cause asthma?
Asthma can be caused by the type of work or by the substances you use while working. Asthma can appear as a new illness, or previous asthma can be aggravated by exposures at work. Both of these are "occupational asthma."
Occupational asthma starts at an older age than regular asthma. Symptoms worsen while at work and, at least initially, improve while away from work, such as during weekends or vacations. Symptoms are present throughout the year and do not vary with changes in seasons. Occupational asthma is more likely in asthmatics who developed their disease as adults.
More than 250 different agents are listed as capable of causing asthma at work. Examples are epoxies and adhesives, paints, coatings, mold, circuit boards, plasticizers, laboratory or farming animals, carbide-tipped tools, flours and grains, wood dusts, medical equipment sterilants, isocyante-releasing chemicals, such as spray foam insulation, natural rubber, latex, chlorine gas, and bleach.
Treatment of occupational asthma
Treatment is the same as for non-work related asthma. However, in occupational asthma avoidance of exposure to the agent that caused the disease is a must. This may require totally stopping working at the job where the worker got ill. Other alternatives are substitution to less-toxic materials, changing work practices, adequate ventilation and personal respiratory protection.
Adapted from articles written by Mount-Sinai - I.J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine and the NYS Dept of Health.