Chronic respiratory disorders are diseases of the airways and lungs that continue over a prolonged period or throughout the lifetime of the affected person. Chronic respiratory disorders can significantly interfere with breathing and proper lung function and may impact people of all ages. Further, because these diseases are long-term and often have significant health effects, they impact not only individuals but can affect entire families.
Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, are the most common chronic respiratory disorders affecting Canadians. Asthma and COPD each affect about 5 per cent of the adult population. Pneumonia, tuberculosis, cystic fibrosis, lung cancer, sleep-related breathing disorders (such as sleep apnea) and mesothelioma are some of the other respiratory conditions that also impact lung function and breathing.
The greatest risk factors for chronic respiratory disease are tobacco smoke (including second-hand smoke) and air quality (indoor and outdoor). Smokers are at a much higher risk of developing COPD, asthma and lung cancer than the general population. And, persons suffering from asthma or COPD can experience a worsening of symptoms if they are exposed to smoke, air pollution or low air quality. Workplace exposure to dust, including grain and coal dust, and some fumes, has been particularly linked to the onset of COPD.
Asthma and COPD
The dominant symptom for asthma includes shortness of breath, and may result in ‘asthma attacks’ involving severe episodes of shortness of breath. Asthma symptoms generally occur or worsen after exposure to irritants or exercise. Asthma irritants include allergens, fumes or gases, and viral respiratory infections. Asthma symptoms result when exposure causes inflammation of the airway wall and abnormal narrowing of the airways. For many asthma sufferers, effective treatment can prevent symptoms from occurring and may largely controls symptoms after they happen.
The primary symptoms for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are shortness of breath, cough and the production of mucus. Flare-ups in COPD symptoms are often triggered by a lung infection. If untreated or severe, a flare-up can cause a COPD sufferer to become disabled or need to be hospitalized. Unlike asthma, which often begins at an early age, COPD tends to progress slowly over years and most commonly effects persons in their 50’s and older. COPD symptoms typically increase in severity with further reductions in airflow and frequent exacerbations.
Asthma and COPD can have a substantial negative impact on the general health and capacity to work for adults suffering from these conditions. Extensive studies of asthma sufferers have found that asthma often correlates with a significant reduction in quality of life from a health perspective and can have a work limitation effect, as well. Even more commonly than asthma sufferers, adults with chronic bronchitis or emphysema often find their ability to function at work is substantially impacted by their condition.
In addition to the physical effects of these conditions, asthma and COPD can be associated with mental health conditions such as depression and poor sleep quality. Adults suffering from COPD are less likely to partake in physical activities and this circumstance can lead to a further reduction in their general health. COPD sufferers can also have diminished social functioning and lower self-esteem. Compared to adults with asthma and non-respiratory chronic health conditions, COPD sufferers tend to have the most impaired mental and physical health status.
Chronic Respiratory Disease and the Workplace
If you are suffering from a respiratory condition such as asthma or COPD, your ability to work effectively can be impacted in many ways. If your job requires physical exertion, such as heavy lifting or standing for prolonged periods, and you have difficulty breathing and are constantly fatigued, you may not be able to perform these functions, particularly on a sustained basis. Also, strenuous activities or exertion may trigger your asthma attack. Persons suffering from a respiratory sleep disorder such as sleep apnea, which can reduce alertness, may find it impossible to carry out their normal job functions or function safely, such as in the case of long-haul truck drivers.
A person with a respiratory disorder may become more disabled when exposed to an environmental element in their workplace, such as allergens, dust and certain chemicals. In fact, the workplace environment can actually add to the general health burden of asthma and other respiratory ailments. Your workplace may be the trigger for irritant-induced asthma, work-aggravated asthma symptoms and immunological occupational asthma. Some epidemiological studies suggest that 10-15 percent of adult asthma occurs due to occupational exposures, and removal from exposure (i.e. from the specific work environment) often results in a substantial improvement in symptoms.
‘Respiratory sensitizers’ is the term given to allergens that cause occupational asthma. Such allergens can cause changes in a person’s airways and over time, can make them hypersensitive to the allergen. Once this occurs, it can trigger asthma symptoms after only a small amount of contact with the allergen. Chemicals used in vehicle spray paint and additives used in baking are two of the most common substances that can trigger allergic occupational asthma. The following jobs have the highest rates of occupational asthma.
- Agriculture – due to contact with pores, bacteria, animal dander, faeces, endotoxins and other materials
- Vehicle spray painting
- Baking – working with flour dust and various enzymes
- Woodworking – due to wood dusts
- Soldering – due to fumes from solder, notably in electronics and assembly industries
- Healthcare work involving latex or diathermy
- Working with animals
- Engineering and machining
- Hairdressing, particularly, working with bleach
Persons with a chronic respiratory disease who are covered under a long-term disability plan are eligible for disability benefits when their symptoms prevent them from performing the essential tasks of their job. You may be eligible for disability benefits if you are recovering from treatment for your condition or your doctor advises that your work environment will worsen your condition, given the severity of your symptoms.
When you are experiencing symptoms which are beginning to, or already interfere with, your ability to work, the first step is to consult with your doctor. Be assertive in having your condition diagnosed. And, it’s very important that you follow your physician’s recommendations for treatment, which will likely include getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, avoiding triggers such as smoke and air pollution, and taking prescribed medications.
If have been following your doctor’s recommendations and your symptoms continue to interfere with your ability to function properly at work, you can apply for disability benefits under your long-term disability plan or the Canada Pension Plan. With your application, your doctor will be required to document your symptoms and treatment, including specifically how your symptoms prevent you from performing the key tasks of your job.
“The Influence of Chronic Respiratory Conditions on Health Status and Work Disability”, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1447269/
“Health and Socioeconomic Impact of Work Related Asthma”, erj.ersjournals.com/content/22/4/689?ijkey=18acdf53d1434a9ba1dee13302c598bd40a03daf&keytype2=tf_ipsecsha
“Chronic Respiratory Diseases”, www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/chronic-diseases/chronic-respiratory-diseases.html