GP Alice Fitzgibbon talks about occupational lung disease

GP Alice Fitzgibbon talks about occupational lung disease

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This month, GP Alice Fitzgibbon looks at the risks to health from your working environment.

The column this month and next is about occupational lung disease (OLD). The term ‘occupational lung disease’ covers any respiratory (lung) disease that is either caused or worsened by exposures at the workplace. These can be caused by breathing in hazardous substances like dust particles or gases. Several lung conditions may fall into this category such as: asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and asbestos related lung disease among others (pneumoconiosis, silicosis, allergic alveolitis and infectious lung diseases).  

Long term exposure to hazardous, toxic or irritating particles in the air can have lasting effects on the lungs, even after the exposure ends. In some cases, repeated exposure to these harmful agents causes scarring in the lungs. OLD is serious; if the lungs are damaged and become scarred, there is no treatment. It is estimated that there are 12,000 OLD related deaths each year linked to previous workplace exposures. As OLD can take a long time to develop, deaths related are a reflection of exposures that happened in the workplaces of the past. The same hazardous particles may still be present in the workplaces of today and so it is important they are recognised as an ongoing hazard to protect workers. These conditions are preventable by using appropriate protective equipment. 

The symptoms of OLD include cough, wheeze, chest pain, shortness of breath or coughing up blood. It might take years to develop any symptoms after the exposure has occurred. Some workplaces and jobs are higher risk than others – construction, agriculture or factory work may expose workers to harmful substances. The temperature and general condition of a working environment can also contribute to lung disease. Workers who took part in the 2009 to 2011 Labour Force Surveys identified the following causes for breathing difficulties or lung problems:  

  • Airborne materials from spray painting or manufacturing foam products  
  • Dust from flour, grain/cereal, animal feed or straw  
  • Airborne materials while welding, soldering, or cutting/grinding metals  
  • Dust from stone, cement, brick or concrete  
  • General work environment e.g. uncomfortable – hot/cold/damp/wet/dry/etc. 

It is difficult to know exactly how many people are affected by occupational lung disease. Estimates from the health and safety executive show that there are approximately 19,00 new cases each year of people with breathing difficulties or lung problems they feel are either caused by or made worse by their workplace. As conditions such as COPD and lung cancer can also be caused by smoking, it may be difficult to identify their cause as a workplace exposure rather than the consumption of tobacco products.  

Both employers and employees should be aware of the potential exposures they may face at work. This is very dependent on what your job is and what role you have. The European Lung Foundation occupational health website has an excellent section on this called ‘What risks does your workplace pose?’ The site also includes a quiz you can take if you feel you have symptoms: Is your workplace affecting your breathing? – Occupational Health – European Lung Foundation.

As these conditions are serious and some are untreatable once they have developed, it is essential to look after your lungs properly. If you are a smoker or a vaper, then stopping will be the best thing you could do to improve your lung health. Adhering to workplace policy around the use of protective face masks is essential. If you are unsure about your exposure risks, then don’t be afraid to ask your line manager. 

If you have respiratory symptoms you feel might be related to your workplace, past or present, such as persistent cough, wheeze, shortness of breath, chest pain or coughing up blood then it is very important to seek a medical review with your GP to allow further investigations including x-rays to help find the cause.  

Next month, we will look into two specific areas of OLD – the risks from silica and asbestos.

For guidance on preventing occupational lung disease (OLD) from the HSE visit: Prevent work-related lung disease – HSE.

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