Did you know your workplace could be the source of your chronic cough? Of course, because of the nature of their location, work, and environment, certain occupations have a higher risk for occupational respiratory diseases than others.
To elaborate, repeated and long-term exposure to certain irritants on the job can be harmful. Namely, they can lead to many occupational respiratory diseases with long-term effects, even after exposure ceases.
For this reason, physicians should consider the possibility of occupational exposure when a working or retired adult presents with unexplained respiratory illness visits them. This criteria also includes exposure in office buildings.
Are you working in agriculture, building and construction, mining, and quarrying, including open-cut mines? These are just some occupations or industries that handle certain types of materials and hazardous agents.
As you can see, coal miners are not the only ones at risk for occupational respiratory diseases, contrary to popular belief. While some of the hazardous agents in these occupations can be hard to identify, they include;
- Specks of dust such as silica dust, coal dust, asbestos
- Chemicals such as cleaning products, isocyanates
- Fumes/gases in processes such as welding
What are the risks associated with inhaling such hazardous agents?
The diseases caused by breathing in hazardous agents are known as Occupational Lung Diseases (or work-related lung diseases). This term covers a wide variety of different lung diseases that you are at risk of, and they include:
Occupational Asthma is by far the most common form of occupational lung disease. They split into the following categories:
i) Occupational asthma – this refers to cases of asthma caused by specific agents in the workplace such as dust, gases, fumes, and vapors
ii) Work-exacerbated asthma – this applies to those who worsen their asthma symptoms while at work. To clarify, factors at work may trigger, aggravate, or exacerbate existing asthma.
Occupational Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
Chronic exposure to clouds of dust, fumes, and gases can cause occupationally induced COPD.
Causes of this condition include mineral dust such as silica and organic dust exposures such as those of farmers and woodworkers; particulate matter in diesel exhaust fumes; and nitrogen oxides, ozone, and ultrafine particles in welding fumes.
Acute hypersensitivity pneumonitis
Many exposures leading to hypersensitivity pneumonitis occur in the workplace. Moreover, several bear the name of the occupation or job associated with them. For instance: farmer’s lung, maple bark stripper’s lung, cheese washer’s lung, thatcher’s lung, mushroom worker’s lung, and metal-working fluid hypersensitivity pneumonitis, just to name a few.
Other occupational causes of this hypersensitivity pneumonitis are exposure to contaminated humidifiers in factories or office buildings and lifeguards exposed to sprays of water from pool fountains contaminated with microorganisms.
Living organisms like viruses and bacteria cause them. Infectious diseases are contagious; hence they can be passed from person to person through body secretions, insects, or other means. Examples are Covid-19, influenza, the common cold, tuberculosis (TB), Hepatitis A, and B.
Occupational lung cancer
There is a significant correlation between the level of exposure to certain types of inorganic dust and the risk of lung cancer. A few prominent examples: asbestos, hexavalent chromium, soluble radon compounds or radon gas, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, chloromethyl ethers, arsenic, or silica.
Other Asbestos-related conditions include:
- pneumoconiosis, diffuse pulmonary fibrosis, i.e., asbestosis; pulmonary (lung) scarring of the lungs caused by inhaling asbestos fibres or dust, often through exposure at work
- benign pleural thickening and pleural plaques; non-cancerous conditions affecting the outer lining of the lungs (the pleura)
- Mesothelioma; cancer of the lining of the lungs or, more rarely, the lining of the abdomen
What are some of the symptoms of these occupational lung diseases?
Regardless of the cause, the following are the most common symptoms of lung diseases; however, each individual may experience symptoms differently depending on the illness. Symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Chest tightness
- Abnormalities in breathing
Treatment of occupational lung diseases
The time it takes to develop an Occupational Lung Disease varies. Some can develop within months or years of work, and some can develop long after you have left the job – up to decades later. Therefore treatment of occupational lung diseases will be determined by your physician based on the following:
- Your medical history and health
- The severity of the lung disease
- Expectations for the course of the disease
- Your opinion or preference
- Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
How can occupational lung diseases be prevented?
Always consult your doctor for more information regarding occupational lung diseases. However, the most effective prevention for occupational lung diseases is avoiding the inhaled substances that cause lung diseases. Other recommended measures include:
- Conduct medical monitoring for your workers to get information, technical assistance, and recommendations to manage occupational respiratory diseases
- Wear proper personal protective equipment, such as facial masks, when around airborne irritants and dust.
- Create awareness by educating your workers concerning the risks of occupational lung disease.
- Always conduct a risk assessment for occupational lung diseases in your work environment by a specially-trained occupational health expert.
- Avoid smoking since it increases the risk for occupational lung disease.
One study attributes the proportion of occupation-related influences on airway and lung diseases as 10-30%. Therefore, it is important to adopt preventive measures since its effects range in workplace productivity and absenteeism, and increased healthcare use.
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