TAKEAWAY: Employees in certain industries may be at risk for serious lung health issues if proper safety interventions aren’t used. In this article, we delve into 4 industries that spark employee lung health issues and some key risk mitigation strategies for employers.
Lung disease is the third leading cause of death in Canada and one in five Canadians — about 6 million adults and children — has an existing respiratory problem. This risk is compounded for workers employed in specific industries, including mining, manufacturing, construction, and agriculture. Occupational exposure can exacerbate existing lung diseases as well as cause lung disease through long-term exposure to chemicals and other irritants.
These occupations can put workers at risk for a wide variety of lung health issues, including:
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
- Occupational Asthma
- Lung Cancer
- Black Lung Disease (Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis)
- Pleural Diseases
Many of these lung health issues are irreversible. However, they are also highly preventable by using a variety of engineering controls, administrative controls, and other safety interventions, including personal protective equipment (PPE). Employers in these 4 industries may want to incorporate respirator fit testing to ensure their employees are properly protected.
Here is an overview of 4 industries that spark employee lung health issues.
Black lung disease, or pneumoconiosis, is probably the best-known occupational lung disease. First identified in the 16th century, it has been long associated with coal mining, but workers in other industries can also be exposed. It’s caused by breathing in coal dust, which causes lung inflammation and scarring.
Black lung disease can eventually turn the lungs black rather than a healthy pink. It can lead to permanent lung damage and shortness of breath, and can also put workers at a higher risk for developing COPD and other lung-related diseases.
Silicosis is another debilitating lung disease that occurs when workers breathe in airborne crystalline silica, dust frequently found in mines, foundries, and blasting operations, as well as facilities that manufacture stone, clay, and glass. It also causes lung scarring and can increase the risk for other lung diseases.
Exposure to numerous known carcinogens, including crystalline silica, diesel exhaust, radon decay products, arsenic, cadmium, nickel, and chromium, can also lead to lung disease for miners. A recent Ontario study determined that miners are at an elevated risk for both silicosis and lung cancers, particularly those working in gold, uranium, and, to a lesser extent, nickel operations. Risks for pulmonary fibrosis and silicosis increased for those who worked for five or more years, but all had higher risks for COPD regardless of how long they worked underground.
Manufacturing can also put workers at risk for lung disease. Textile workers, for example, can breathe in the dust produced by hemp, flax, and cotton processing, leading to a condition known as Brown Lung Disease, also known as Byssinosis. This chronic condition can cause chest tightness and shortness of breath.
Work-related asthma is another common condition for textile and other manufacturing workers who breathe in certain dust, gases, fume, and vapors. This can lead to asthmatic symptoms such as chronic coughing or wheezing.
In food manufacturing, workers can also be exposed to diacetyl. Diacetyl is a compound used to flavor microwave popcorn, wines, and fast food. This agent can cause Bronchiolitis obliterans (sometimes colloquially referred to as “Popcorn Lung”) which presents as difficulties with breathing and reduced oxygen levels in the bloodstream.
Hard metal disease can also affect those who work with tungsten carbide or cobalt. This disease can cause various symptoms, from shortness of breath and coughing to fatigue and weight loss. Mechanics and autobody workers can be put at risk using spray-on paints. These paints can cause allergies and chronic chest tightness as well as breathing difficulties.
Manufacturing workers are also at risk from cleaning agents and other products used in their plants. These should be closely monitored.
Asbestosis is probably the most well-recognized lung-related health issue for construction workers. It is caused when a person breathes in tiny asbestos fibers. While asbestos has been mostly eliminated in new buildings, it still exists in many old buildings. It can cause scarring of the lungs and stiffen lung tissue, making it difficult to breathe. Mesothelioma and lung cancer are also caused by exposure to asbestos.
However, construction workers are also at risk for other types of exposures and serious lung health issues. Depending on the job, silicosis is a risk for workers exposed to silica dust. It is a highly disabling disease that causes breathing difficulties and a chronic cough. This is seldom diagnosed before workers retire.
Occupational asthma also affects construction workers exposed to specific substances, such as wood dust or chemicals, over long periods of time. These exposures can also worsen asthmatic attacks for existing asthma sufferers.
Agriculture workers are at risk for several lung issues depending on the equipment and agricultural product they are working with as well as their role in the process. For example, hypersensitivity pneumonitis occurs when workers breathe in certain substances, which then cause an allergic reaction in the lungs that leaves them inflamed.
These substances include fungus spores, bacteria, animal or plant proteins, or even certain chemicals. It can cause scar tissue to form in the lungs and cause difficulties with breathing. This disease often goes by other names related to the exposures, such as Farmer’s Lung and Mushroom Worker’s Lung.
Mould is a significant contributor to agricultural lung diseases, as is dung from birds and rodents and certain insect infestations such as wheat weevils. For example, mouldy hay triggers Farmer’s Lung, Bagassosis comes from mouldy sugar cane fibres, and Grain Handler’s Lung from mouldy grain. Dung from pigeons, parakeets, fowl, and rodents causes Bird Fancier’s Lung.
Work-related asthma is another hazard for agricultural workers. These workers breathe in dust, gases, fumes, or vapours during farming operations or animal care.
Other Industries of Note
Many other industries can cause lung health issues. Beauty and salon workers are at risk for occupational asthma. This is due to repeated exposure to hair spray, nail products, glue, and disinfectants. Dockworkers and truckers can suffer from exposure to specific products and exhaust fumes. Firefighters are frequently exposed to smoke and other carcinogens.
The good news is that many of these occupational lung diseases are highly preventable. Workplaces are installing engineering, administrative, and other controls designed to protect workers. Both PPE and monitoring technologies continue to advance, making these workplaces safer. Employers in any of these industries may find value in lung health monitoring programs, which help identify any concerns at an earlier stage. Integrating lung health programs into pre-employment testing can also help employers establish a baseline for all workers. This can be a useful metric for examining whether any changes take place in a particular worker’s lung health.
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