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A State-Based Surveillance System For Work-Related Asthma

Rosenman, Kenneth D. MD; Reilly, Mary J. MS; Kalinowski, Douglas J. MS

Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine: May 1997 - Volume 39 - Issue 5 - p 415-425
Original Article

The current national surveillance system for occupational illnesses underestimates the incidence of work-related asthma. This article describes a state-based surveillance system for work-related asthma. The Michigan surveillance system enables us to estimate the incidence of work-related asthma, describe the characteristics of affected individuals, and facilitate public health interventions in the form of workplace inspections. The data presented are based on interviews with a case-series of individuals with work-related asthma reported to the Michigan Department of Public Health (MDPH) from 1988 to 1994. We also present cross-sectional data on coworkers of the index cases, who were interviewed during the workplace investigations, and exposure measurements from those investigations. Potential cases were reported by physicians, hospitals, or the Michigan Department of Labor. Case eligibility was based on the criteria for work-related asthma developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Between 1988 and 1994, 725 people who met the NIOSH criteria for work-related asthma were reported to the MDPH. Seventy-six percent of the reports were from physicians, 17.1% were from hospitals, 7.3% were from workers' compensation records, and 3.5% were from other health professionals. Eighty-three percent of the reports were for individuals with the onset of newly diagnosed asthma after a period of symptomless exposure, 7.3% were for aggravation of preexisting asthma, and 9.5% were for reactive airway dysfunction syndrome (RADS). The overall annual average incidence rate of work-related asthma in Michigan was 2.9 cases per 100,000 workers. Rates were 0.8/100,000 in the service industry and 8.5/100,000 in manufacturing. Isocyanates and machining coolants were the two most common causes of asthma among workers reported to the surveillance system. Demographics of the individuals reported are described. During workplace follow-up investigations, 861 fellow workers were identified as having possible work-related asthma. Another 151 coworkers were identified from the company-maintained injury and illness logs as having possible work-related asthma. In addition, the investigations identified two new causes of work-related asthma. The primary limitations of the surveillance system include a lack of objective testing to confirm the diagnosis of work-related asthma and underreporting of cases. Despite these limitations, this state-based surveillance system has proven successful in identifying new causes of asthma and identifying workplaces with a high prevalence of workers with respiratory symptoms who may benefit from public health interventions.

From the Department of Medicine, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich. (Dr Rosenman, Ms Reilly); and the Division of Occupational Health, Michigan Department of Public Health, East Lansing, Mich. (Mr Kalinowski).

Address correspondence to: Kenneth D. Rosenman, MD, Department of Medicine, Michigan State University, 117 West Fee Hall, East Lansing, MI 48824-1316.

© Williams & Wilkins 1997. All Rights Reserved.