V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer

Your workplace could kil

Vivian Song photo for the Toronto Star

Rick and Maureen Ampleford host an annual golf tournament in honour of their son, Mark, a construction worker who died at age 27 from a work-related asthma attack.

Published in The Toronto Star, April, 2010.

Rick and Maureen Ampleford are recounting how events unfolded on the day they learned their 27-year-old son had died from an asthma attack.

Maureen remembers Mark’s exact last words during a brief phone conversation at 3 a.m.

Rick can recall every word of his phone conversation with the hospital staff in Ottawa, before the doctor broke the news.

It was Labour Day weekend, 2003. The couple had gone to Ottawa to spend the long weekend with their son, a construction worker. They spent all Saturday golfing and went out for dinner. Mark was in fine health. The couple returned home to Bolton on Tuesday, when they got his call at 3 a.m.

“I didn’t hear any panic in his voice,” Maureen recalls. “All he says was, ‘Mom, I’m really having a hard time catching my breath.’ ”

She told him to call 911, and to call her when he was able. There was no call.

The next day, Rick called all the hospitals in Ottawa, inquiring after his son. When found the right hospital, his query was met with silence.

“The girl hesitated a minute,” he recalls. “She says, ‘Just a minute’ and, the next thing I knew, the doctor came on and asked me who I was.”

After identifying himself as Mark’s father, she asked him if there was someone with him, bracing him for the news.

“And then she says, ‘I’m sorry to tell you but we couldn’t revive him,’ ” he says. “And then all hell broke loose.”

Mark had died from a violent asthma attack related to his work in construction. It’s likely that he couldn’t catch his breath, smothered and blacked out.

Mark used a puffer and suffered from asthma as a child. But it never slowed him down, as he played all manner of sports, including hockey, Maureen says.

“His asthma was sporadic, it never interfered with his life. That’s why we were shocked when he died from this.”

While work-exacerbated asthma occurs in people who already have the condition, occupational asthma develops in people who’ve never had it before. Environmental triggers such as paint, fumes, dust and food products can activate asthmatic conditions like coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath, says Dr. Susan Tarlo, a respiratory physician with the University Health Network and a medical adviser to the Ontario Lung Association.

“One of the problems is that asthma can start at any stage in life,” she says.

An estimated 25 per cent of adults with asthma have symptoms that are work-related. Similarly, 15 per cent of new asthma cases in adults can be blamed on workplace triggers.

Occupational asthma is common in bakeries, Tarlo says, where workers are exposed to flour, wheat enzymes and other grains and cereals. It’s also common in workplaces with animals (farms, veterinaries and research labs), greenhouses and flower shops. Chemicals found in paints, foam, rubber and insulation can also activate it.

“If you leave the environment early on after the symptoms arise, there’s a good chance your asthma will go away,” says Tarlo. “But it’s less likely if you stay longer.”

To determine if coughing, itchy nose and red irritated eyes are symptoms of work-related asthma and not just allergies or seasonal flu, keep track of your symptoms with a diary, suggests Diane Feldman, a respiratory nurse with the Ontario Lung Association. “That way, you can pinpoint the time of day or week when your symptoms get worse.”

If you think your workplace is creating an asthmatic response, consult your employer, she says. “Removing triggers is extremely important. Ask to be relocated and move to a different work area or use a mask.”

Office spaces have been known to trigger asthmatic responses if workers are exposed to mould and fungal contaminants. Feldman says one of the most common concerns is perfume, which can exacerbate existing asthma.

The year Mark died was bittersweet for the Amplefords. That summer, Rick walked his oldest daughter down the aisle at her wedding. Six weeks later, he walked down a different aisle to bury his son.

Mark’s death was a devastating reminder that asthma can kill, a message the family promotes through an annual memorial golf tournament and fundraiser. Held in partnership with the lung association, the tournament has raised $185,000 over the past six years. This year, they hope to raise $55,000 with the help of former Leaf captain Wendel Clark.

“We want to get out the message that asthma can be fatal,” Rick says. “But you can also live an active, productive life, provided you know your triggers and you take the appropriate steps to manage your asthma.”

The 7th annual Apple Classic Golf Tournament will be held Monday, May 17 at Glen Abbey golf course in Oakville. For more details, go to www.on.lung.ca and look under the Events/Golf/GTA West menus.

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