Early Warning Signs of Work-Related COPD

What is Work-Related Lung Disease?

Occupational or work-related lung diseases are lung conditions that have been caused or made worse by long-term exposure to certain irritants in the workplace. Exposures such as dust, fumes, chemicals, or vapors at your job can irritate your airways and tissues in the lungs. These exposures may increase your risk of worsening a pre-existing lung condition or developing a new work-related lung disease. 

One example is work-related COPD. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung condition that causes airway obstruction and breathing-related symptoms. Your healthcare provider may diagnose you as having COPDemphysema, or chronic bronchitis that may be worsened by continued exposure to workplace irritants.

Many workplaces may expose workers to risk factors for a lung disease like COPD, but the leading job types include agriculture, mining, and manufacturing. 

  • Secondhand smoke
  • Mineral dusts like silica, coal, asbestos
  • Organic dusts like cotton, wood, grains
  • Metal or welding fumes like cadmium
  • Diesel or exhaust fumes
  • Asphalt, tar fumes, or vapor in roads or roofing
  • Smoke from fires
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Exposures to dust, chemicals, fumes and vapors in the workplace may put you at risk of developing a lung disease like COPD.

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Early Warning Signs of Work-Related COPD

Over time, exposure to smoke, dust, chemicals, and other lung irritants may cause COPD-related symptoms. The most common early warning signs of COPD are shortness of breath, a cough that may bring up sputum (mucus or phlegm), wheezing, tiredness or fatigue, or repeated lung infections like bronchitis or pneumonia.

Does your workplace expose you to dust, chemicals, vapors, or fumes?

Many industries such as mining, manufacturing, or farming may expose you to hazardous substances that increase your risk of developing a lung disease like COPD and asthma or can worsen a pre-existing lung condition. Take this assessment and find out if these exposures may be affecting your lungs.
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You may notice symptoms starting in your early 40’s. At first, you may think these signs are part of normal aging and change your activities to have fewer symptoms. 

  • taking the elevator instead of the steps because you get short of breath.
  • sweeping sawdust and start having a lingering cough that brings up mucus.
  • calling out sick several times and going to urgent care because of colds and bronchitis. 

A lung disease like COPD is often diagnosed when people are between 45-60 years old. As lung function worsens and symptoms become harder to manage, it may affect your productivity at work. COPD flare-ups or exacerbations may also lead to more missed workdays and medical-related costs. COPD may also lead to early retirement. Over one in four people with COPD aged 45-68 years old retire early before of worsening COPD symptoms.

What should I do if I work at a job that exposes me to dust and I get short of breath?

While shortness of breath is a sign of COPD, it is also a sign of other health conditions like asthma. The first step is to talk to your healthcare provider about risk factors like your smoking history, workplace exposure and breathing-related symptoms.  

  • Have you ever been exposed regularly to vapors, gases, dust, or fumes at work?
  • How long have you been exposed?
  • When was the first time?
  • In which job or jobs?
  • Are you currently exposed?
  • Did you or do you wear personal protective equipment during exposure?

COPD diagnosed in earlier stages can lead to treatment starting sooner and may prevent further lung function loss, fewer symptoms, and an improved quality of life for you.

How can I keep my lungs healthy if I work around dust, chemicals, gases, or vapors? 

Employers should identify, reduce, or remove exposures to hazards that put workers at risk of developing respiratory conditions like COPD. These work processes or controls may include eliminating, substituting, or reducing exposure to hazardous substances. Use personal protective equipment (PPE) like respirators to help protect your lungs.

Tobacco smoke can cause and worsen COPD symptoms. If you smoke, plan to quit. The American Lung Association’s Freedom From Smoking program gives you the resources to quit for good.

Many states have 100% smokefree air laws, however there are still states that do not have comprehensive smokefree indoor air laws covering all bars, restaurants, and worksites. Encourage your employer to establish a tobacco-free policy.

Vaccinations can help prevent and reduce your risk of infectious respiratory diseases that can leave lasting damage to your lungs. 

The COPD Basics course will help you recognize COPD risk factors and symptoms. The course also covers diagnosis, medications, and treatment options. 

Follow the proper steps to alert them and document each step. Work with management to investigate the potential problem. If you suspect a health hazard at your workplace, employees, employee representatives, or employers can request an evaluation.

  • Work Related Lung Disease Worksheet

  • OSHA: Respiratory Protection

  • CDC: Respiratory Health at Work

  • NHLBI: Lung Health on the Job


Page last updated: June 6, 2024

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