Workplace Medical Mystery: What Is Making This Roofer Sick?

Posted on by Emily Kirby, BPH, and Catherine C. Beaucham, PhD, CIH

medical mystery graphicRay drove to his work site on Monday morning, sipping coffee along the way. Spring was almost over, and everything was in full bloom. He was thankful for a cloudy day and cranked up the air conditioning, he knew he would start sweating once he got to work.

Today Ray and his crew were working on a rubber roofing membrane installation. Ray parked and walked over to where the crew was setting up. Everyone was sharing stories from the weekend, but Ray hadn’t left the house since his kids came home from school sick on Friday. Ray wore his usual attire, a t-shirt, work pants, and boots, and the company provided a respirator and cotton gloves. The crew got to work removing the old insulation. The roof was then sprayed with foam and Ray waited for a few minutes before rolling the rubber roof membrane onto the foam. His coworkers pushed the membrane down with weighted rollers and brooms.

As the day went on, the clouds lifted and somehow it felt even more humid. Ray took frequent breaks to combat the heat while on the roof, occasionally removing his respirator and gloves temporarily to cool off. During these breaks he also drank water from the large company-provided water jug. Between coughs, one of his coworkers complained about his allergies and the pollen.

At lunchtime, Ray grabbed his food from his car and joined the crew in a shady spot. He started to wonder if the pollen was causing his headache or if he caught a cold from his kids. He grabbed more water and hoped a smoke break would help. At the end of the day, Ray felt worse: his nose felt stuffy, he was coughing and wheezing, and his chest felt tight. He figured a hot shower and a good night’s sleep would help.

The next day, one of the crew members had called in sick and Ray worried about the long shift ahead. Soon, he started feeling sick again and found it hard to breath in the humid air. By the end of the day, he decided to make a medical appointment but his doctor couldn’t find anything wrong. What is causing Ray’s symptoms?

Check back on Friday  for the next installment of Workplace Medical Mysteries to see what is making Ray sick.  Think you know? Tell us what you think it is in the comment section below.


Emily Kirby, BPH, is a Health Communication Specialist in the NIOSH Office of Communication and Research to Practice.

Catherine C. Beaucham, PhD, CIH, is an Industrial Hygienist in the NIOSH Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations, and Field Studies.  


This blog is part of the NIOSH Workplace Medical Mystery Series. The names and certain personal details of the characters are fictitious and do not represent an actual person or persons.

Posted on by Emily Kirby, BPH, and Catherine C. Beaucham, PhD, CIH

21 comments on “Workplace Medical Mystery: What Is Making This Roofer Sick?”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Seems like the polyurethane foam insulation is making the roofer sick. Possible irritant asthma.

    Interesting story. A few ringers in there to distract😄
    My guess is exposure to cyanoacrylate adhesive, nasty to the respiratory system.

    Breathing fumes from the membrane adhesive when removing safety equipment to cool off may be the issue.
    Blood and urine toxicology may confirm exposure.

    The source of the illness could be Isocyanates, which is one of the active ingredients of foam products in general.

    Without reading other comment (don’t want to spoil my guess):
    Exposure to isocyanates in the roofing materials that was better liberated from heat conditions. Sensitization reaction.

    “Ray, if someone asks you if you’re a God, you say YES”
    Stay away from the spray foam Ray!

    ¿de que enfermaron los hijos de Ray?
    ¿en que condiciones se guarda el equipo de protección que proporcionó la empresa?
    ¿cuanto tiempo tenia de haber sido preparada el agua?
    ¿cuales son los riesgos de la espuma y lamembrana de goma (compuestos químicos)

    pensaría en legionella, virus respiratorios y…

    En México, aunque no son techos con todos los compuestos químicos que se usaron en el caso, al remover techos se han visto casos de Histoplasmosis, por lo tanto tambien considero que habria que descartar.

    The NIOSH Science Blog Coordinator added the following from Google Translate:

    What did Ray’s children get sick of?
    Under what conditions is the protective equipment provided by the company stored?
    How long had the water been prepared?
    What are the risks of foam and rubber membrane (chemical compounds)

    I would think of legionella, respiratory viruses and…

    In Mexico, although there are not roofs with all the chemical compounds that were used in the case, cases of Histoplasmosis have been seen when removing roofs, therefore I also consider that it should be ruled out.

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Page last reviewed: June 24, 2022
Page last updated: June 24, 2022