Occupational Lung Diseases

Exposure to environmental and occupational lung irritants may put you at risk of developing chronic lung diseases.

What are occupational lung diseases?

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. Dust particles, chemicals, fungal spores, and certain animal droppings are examples of exposures that may increase your risk of developing occupational lung disease.

There is no cure for occupational lung diseases. Controlling your exposure to lung irritants and treatment can help slow the disease progression, lessen symptoms, and improve your quality of life. If you smoke, quit. Smoking can cause or worsen lung disease.

What are the warning signs of occupational lung disease?

Exposure to workplace irritants can impact many of the body systems including the lungs. Many of these symptoms may not appear until years after exposure.

How is occupational lung disease diagnosed?

Due to your workplace location, responsibilities, and industry, you may be placed at a higher risk of developing lung disease. Examples of industries that may place you at a higher risk of developing a lung disease include mining, construction, farming, livestock, first responders, and the military.

Early detection is key.

  • Talk to your healthcare provider about your warning signs, even if the symptoms seem mild.
  • Share your complete medical and job-related history.
  • Your healthcare professional will conduct a physical exam and may recommend lung function tests like spirometry, chest x-ray, or CT scan.

What are the different types of occupational lung disease?

Exposure to environmental and occupational lung irritants may put you at risk of developing chronic lung disease, including:

  • Silicosis is caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica, a mineral found in sand, quartz, and many other types of rock. Silicosis mainly affects workers exposed to silica dust in jobs such as construction and mining.
  • Coccidioidomycosis or Valley fever is an infection caused by breathing in the spores of the fungus Coccidioides found in the soil. Valley fever mainly affects workers exposed to dust storms or areas where contaminated soil is being disturbed, in jobs like construction or farming.
  • Hypersensitive pneumonitis is caused when you breathe in a specific substance (allergen) that triggers an allergic reaction in your body. Some commonly seen problems are given specific names related to the source of the allergen, including farmer’s lung and bird fancier’s lung.
  • Histoplasmosis is caused by breathing fungal spores from soil that has been contaminated by bird or bat droppings. Some occupations that may expose workers to spores are farmers, pest control workers, poultry keepers, construction workers and landscapers.
  • Asbestosis is a naturally occurring mineral used as an insulation material and as a fire retardant. The main group at risk for asbestosis is people who worked in mining, milling, manufacturing, installation, or removal of asbestos products before the late 1970s.
  • Coal workers pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung disease, occurs when coal dust is inhaled. Continued exposure to coal dust causes scarring in the lungs.
  • Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer that occurs in the lining of the lungs and less commonly the lining of the abdomen. Asbestos exposure is the primary risk factor for mesothelioma. Occupations such as mining or milling, electricians, plumbers, pipe-fitters, insulators, or even remodelers of older homes still have a high risk of exposure.
  • Work-related asthma accounts for 15 percent to 23 percent of new adult asthma cases in the United States. According to one study, men working in forestry and with metals and women in the service industries (waitresses, cleaners, and dental workers) have the highest risk for occupational asthma.
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a leading cause of death and disability in the United States. Tobacco smoke is a leading cause of COPD, however secondhand smoke and workplace exposure to dust, fumes, gases, vapors also increase the risk of COPD. Occupations or industries that have a higher prevalence of COPD include mining, food related services, construction, transportation or healthcare support.  

How can I reduce my risk?

There are a few steps you can take to reduce your risk of lung disease.

  • Work with your employer if you are still in the same position to ensure access to the appropriate protective equipment. Make sure you are using it correctly and whenever it is indicated.
  • Attend repeated safety trainings on how to minimize your exposure to harmful substances in the workplace.
  • Reduce your exposure to lung irritants outside of work. Don't smoke or vape and avoid secondhand smoke and aerosol whenever possible. Test your home for high levels of radon (the second leading cause of lung cancer), and if it has high levels, be sure to mitigate it. Stay inside on poor air quality days whenever possible.
  • Discuss with your healthcare provider vaccines that protect against flu, pneumonia, COVID-19 and other infectious respiratory illnesses.

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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