Workers whose jobs involve unprotected exposure to airborne contaminants are prime candidates for occupational lung disease, with effects ranging from discomfort to premature death.
What it Means
The term ‘occupational lung disease’ refers to a number of conditions, and each one affects the lungs in a different way. Some affect the airways that carry air in and out of the lungs; others affect the tiny air sacs through which oxygen is transferred into the blood from the air we breathe; still others affect the thin lining between the lungs and ribcage. The factor which links them all is that they have been caused by something in the working environment.
How Serious is It?
According to the American Lung Association:
- In the U.S., occupational lung diseases are the number one cause of work-related illness in terms of frequency, severity, and preventability.
- Most occupational lung diseases are caused by repeated, long-term exposure, but even a severe, single exposure to a hazardous agent can damage the lungs.
Who is at Greatest Risk?
According to writer Lisa Zamosky in a Health Magazine article, people who work in these professions have the greatest risk for occupational lung disease:
- Construction workers – inhaling dust in demolitions or renovations can lead to lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis.
- Factory workers – inhaling dust, chemicals, and gases can lead to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease(COPD) and a sometimes deadly disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, a close relative of COPD.
- Health care workers – An estimated 8% to 12% of health-care workers are sensitive to the powder residue found in latex gloves, which can become airborne and cause a severe asthma-type reaction.
- Textile workers – Inhaling particles released from cotton and other materials can lead to Byssinosis, also called brown lung disease, which is common among those who have worked in the textile industry.
- Bartenders – Spending hours in a smoke-filled environment puts bartenders at high risk for lung disease, especially if they are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke over many years.
- Bakers – Baking is near the top of the list of asthma-provoking jobs. An asthmatic reaction to enzymes used to alter the consistency of dough, as well as allergens shed by the bugs often found in flour, is common as well.
- Auto workers – Occupational asthma can be a risk for those in the automobile industry, particularly auto-body repair. Auto spray-on paints, such as isocyanate and polyurethane products, can irritate skin, create allergies, and cause chest tightness and severe breathing trouble.
- Transportation workers – Delivery truck drivers, those who unload merchandise on loading docks, and railroad industry workers can be at risk for COPD. Diesel exhaust is the biggest factor.
- Mining – Miners are at high risk for a number of lung diseases, including COPD, because of dust exposure. Airborne silica, also known as quartz, can lead to silicosis, a disease that scars lungs. Coal miners are at risk for another type of lung-scarring disease called pneumoconiosis (black lung).
- Firefighting – Firefighters can inhale smoke and a wide range of chemicals that may be present in a burning building. Although the breathing apparatus does a good job of protecting them, it isn’t always worn, especially when firefighters sift through debris to ensure that the fire doesn’t reignite. Exposure to toxic materials and asbestos is a risk even after the fire is out.
What Can be Done to Prevent Occupational Lung Disease?
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) recommends that workers:
- Not smoke. Smoking can actually increase the risk for occupational lung disease.
- Wear proper personal protection devices, such as facial masks, when around airborne irritants and dusts.
Evaluate lung function as often as recommended by your physician.
- The NHLB also recommends that employers:
- Educate employees concerning the risks of lung disease.
- Hire a specially-trained occupational health expert to investigate the work environment for risks for occupational lung diseases.