Occupational Respiratory Disease


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Who is at risk for work-related lung disease?

You may be at risk for work-related lung disease if the air you breathe at work contains an excessive amount of dust, fumes, smoke, gases, vapors or mists. Workers who smoke are at a much greater risk of lung disease if they are exposed to substances in the workplace that can cause lung disease. Poor ventilation, closed-in working areas and heat increase the risk of disease. Outside air pollution also can increase the risk of lung disease in people who work in jobs that expose them to substances that can cause lung disease.

What substances in the workplace can cause lung disease?

Many substances found in the workplace can cause breathing problems or lung damage. Some of them include the following:

  • Dust from such things as wood, cotton, coal, asbestos, silica and talc. Dust from cereal grains, coffee, pesticides, drug or enzyme powders, metals and fiberglass can also hurt your lungs.
  • Fumes from metals that are heated and cooled quickly. This process results in fine, solid particles being carried in the air. Examples of jobs that involve exposure to fumes from metals and other substances that are heated and cooled quickly include welding, smelting, furnace work, pottery making, plastics manufacture and rubber operations.
  • Smoke from burning organic materials. Smoke can contain a variety of particles, gases and vapors, depending on what substance is being burned. Firefighters are at an increased risk.
  • Gases such as formaldehyde, ammonia, chlorine, sulfur dioxide, ozone and nitrogen oxides. These are associated with jobs where chemical reactions occur and in jobs with high heat operations, such as welding, brazing, smelting, oven drying and furnace work.
  • Vapors, which are a form of gas given off by all liquids. Vapors, such as those given off by solvents, usually irritate the nose and throat first, before they affect the lungs.
  • Mists or sprays from paints, lacquers (such as varnish), hair spray, pesticides, cleaning products, acids, oils and solvents (such as turpentine).

What kinds of breathing problems can occur following exposure to such substances?

Some substances can cause you to have upper respiratory irritation or irritation of your nose and/or throat with cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose and scratchy throat.

Viral infections and allergies produce similar symptoms. You should become suspicious of a work-related illness if your nose and throat are often irritated and breathing problems seem to occur when you are at work. Breathing in substances at work can also increase your risk of developing bronchitis, flu-like symptoms, asthma or emphysema.

A person who has bronchitis has a persistent cough that produces mucus or sputum and lasts at least 3 months to a year. Cigarette smoking is the most common cause of bronchitis, but workplace toxins can also play a role.

If you notice that you often have what seems to be the flu, your illness may be caused by something you are exposed to at work. The following are some work-related lung diseases that can make you feel as though you have the flu:

  • Allergic alveolitis (also known as "farmer's lung") can occur after excessive exposure to moldy hay.
  • Metal fume fever occurs from inhalation of metal vapors, such as in welding and other metallic operations.
  • Polymer fume fever can occur after breathing the fumes of polymers, such as Teflon.

A worker who has one of these conditions develops breathing problems, cough, fever, muscle aches and general malaise (a feeling of being tired and having no energy) 4 to 6 hours after exposure to the substance. If such symptoms occur again and again when you are at work, this is a clue that your illness may be related to your work.

If you develop asthma for the first time as an adult, the illness could be related to something you are exposed to at work. Asthma symptoms include wheezing, chest tightness, a persistent dry cough or trouble breathing.

Emphysema usually occurs in older people who smoke. However, people who have worked with coal, asbestos or silica dust for 20 years or more can also develop emphysema. They may have a cough, fatigue, chest tightness and difficulty breathing.

What should I do if I think something in the air at work is making me sick?

Visit your doctor if you think the air at work is making you sick. Your doctor will probably ask you to provide some of the following information:

  • When your symptoms first appeared
  • How often you have symptoms
  • The time of day that the symptoms are worse
  • Whether you feel better on some days
  • How you think your symptoms relate to work
  • What types of materials you come in contact with at work

You may find it helpful to keep a written record of these things to share with your doctor. Be sure to make a note of your shift or work hours, the days of the week you work and the days of the week you are off work. Try to recall previous jobs, hobbies and smoking habits -- anything that might have affected your lungs. If your doctor has sent you an occupational health history form, fill it out as completely as possible.

Your doctor may find it helpful to know all of the ingredients listed on the containers of materials you use in the workplace. Make a list of these ingredients and write down any precautions and first-aid measures that are printed on the label.

Ask your employer for copies of the material safety data sheets (MSDSs) at your workplace. These are information sheets about the products that you use in the workplace. All employers are required by law to complete these forms, and you have a right to see them. Bring them with you to your doctor's appointment.

How can I keep from having my lungs damaged by something I'm exposed to at work?

If you smoke, stop. This is the most important thing you can do for your overall health, regardless of risks at your workplace. Smokers have a greater risk of developing some work-related lung diseases than nonsmokers.

Use a respirator. A respirator is a device you wear over your mouth and nose that cleans the air before it enters your body. You must be properly fitted and trained to use a respirator. Over time you should be refitted and retrained in how to use it. The respirator must be carefully cleaned after each use and it should be checked to ensure that it works properly. Use a respirator as a temporary measure until you are no longer exposed to the damaging substance.

If you are exposed to damaging substances at work, talk to your supervisor about the need for adequate ventilation and new procedures to reduce or eliminate your exposure. A change in ingredients, work practices or machinery can reduce hazards in the air. Ventilation systems can remove pollutants and toxins from the air to reduce exposure and prevent buildup. Local exhaust ventilation can be used to remove polluted air at the point where it is generated by a hazardous process or machine. At some jobs, people can be separated from the hazardous materials.

Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 07/10
Created: 09/00

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