Author(s): HH Mwanga, R. Baatjies, T. Singh, MF Jeebhay

Source: American Journal of Industrial Medicine 2022;1–14


Background: Health workers (HWs) are exposed to diverse cleaning agents in large hospitals. This study determined the prevalence of work‐related symptoms, allergic sensitization, and lung function abnormalities in HWs of two tertiary hospitals in Southern Africa.

Methods: A cross‐sectional study of 699 HWs (South Africa: SAH, n = 346; Tanzania: TAH, n = 353) was conducted. Health outcomes were assessed using a standardized ECRHS questionnaire, immunological tests (specific IgE antibody to common aero‐ allergens and to occupational allergens: natural rubber latex [NRL] Hev b5 and Hev b6.02, chlorhexidine, and ortho‐phthalaldehyde [OPA]), spirometry [pre‐and post‐ bronchodilator], methacholine challenge, and fractional exhaled nitric oxide (FeNO).

Results: A large proportion of participants (78%) were women. Median age was 42 years, with 76% nurses, 12% cleaners, and 5% administrative workers. Current smoking was more common in SAHWs (12%) than TAHWs (1%). The overall prevalence of doctor‐diagnosed asthma was 7%. Atopy was present in 43% of HWs, while 4% were sensitized to OPA, 2% to NRL, and 1% to chlorhexidine. Prevalence of work‐related ocular‐nasal symptoms (16%) was higher than skin (12%) and chest (7%) symptoms. TAHWs had significantly lower mean lung volumes, higher degrees of significant airflow obstruction and impaired lung function. The prevalence of bronchial hyperresponsiveness in SAHWs (14%) was high. Overall, 23% of HWs had abnormal FeNO; 6% having high (>50 ppb) levels. FeNO was positively associated with sensitization to occupational allergens, primarily OPA and NRL.

Conclusions: HWs from both hospitals had similar prevalence of work‐related respiratory symptoms. Sensitization to OPA and NRL appears to be contributing to allergic airway inflammation in these HWs.

Keywords: Airway obstruction; allergy; cleaning agents; health workers; NSBH; work‐related asthma