Checking in on Occupational Lung Health
When we think of occupational hazards that leave workers sidelined, what often comes to mind are accidents that happen on the job, such as falls and injuries. But there’s something else that impacts workers’ health, and their lungs specifically, with respect to occupational hazards: the air we breathe.
On a consistent basis, the lungs are one of the only internal organs that have direct exposure to the outside air. When exposed to dangerous chemicals and poor air quality, many health issues arise, like cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma.
The sad truth is that employees who work on construction sites, in mines, and at industrial plants may not even be aware of the risks these jobs pose. Taking the time to inform your workforce about taking precautions in certain circumstances is a prudent way to go.
What are the threats?
The biggest occupational threats to long term lung health are the small sediment or microscopic fibers that are inhaled on the job. If particles from the environment find their way into the soft tissues of the body, these fibers can become lodged inside and irritate the lung’s lining, causing inflammation and potentially chronic respiratory diseases. More specifically a few of these substances are:
Crystalline silica is a natural mineral commonly found in soil, sand, and concrete. When silica material is ground into dust during construction or mining projects, the carcinogenic material they contain may be inhaled. Silica most commonly can lead to silicosis if they are embedded in the lung and cause scar tissue to form. This scarring can make it hard for the lungs to take in oxygen, affecting natural and healthy oxygen intake.
Another naturally occurring fiber, asbestos was used in many construction projects from the early to late-20th century. Similar to silica, asbestos becomes dangerous when its tiny fibers are inhaled and embedded within the lining of the lungs. The fibers irritate the lung’s lining and can lead to asbestosis, a disease that doesn’t show up for 10 to 40 years after initial exposure. Even more serious than asbestosis, the prolonged irritation can lead to a serious cancer called mesothelioma.
Coal miners have been at risk from the effects of inhaling coal dust for decades. The prolonged inhalation of coal dust, especially in poorly-ventilated spaces, can lead to a dangerous amount of exposure. The most common lung disease caused by overexposure to coal dust is pneumoconiosis, otherwise known as “black lung disease.” Graphite dust, cobalt, and talc can cause similar inflammation.
What occupations are affected most?
There are several occupations where these abrasive materials occur, leaving the workers vulnerable to exposure. Approximately 2 million workers are vulnerable to silica exposure annually, including stone cutters, masons, miners, and welders. Another 125 million are at risk of being exposed to asbestos on the job. For workers in these high risk occupations, it’s crucial for long term health to be aware of where asbestos has been used in the past and take the proper safety precautions while onsite.
Those who are first to arrive to the scene of a burning building or collapsed structure may be the first to be at risk of inhaling dust, sediment, or asbestos that becomes airborne. Whether they be firefighters, paramedics, police officers, or natural disaster relief workers, all first responders should be aware of unhealthy airborne risks and wear the appropriate gear on the job to protect themselves. Even in the aftermath of a fire, as materials cool, responders could be vulnerable to particles that may cause cancer over time, as asbestos can remain airborne for up to 72 hours.
Professionals in the construction industry are at a high risk for being exposed to asbestos. The mineral is quite durable as its properties show heat and chemical resistance, which was why it was frequently used in constructing buildings of every type. For this reason, if asbestos has not been mitigated, those working on such a site could be unknowingly exposed to asbestos. Any homes or buildings built before 1990 should be tested for asbestos before any major construction project.
Car Mechanics and Manufacturers
Asbestos was commonly used in car parts and brake pads due to its ability to resist heat. Unfortunately, this put many mechanics at risk of inhaling asbestos during the process of changing brake pads in low ventilated areas. Companies today offer safer alternatives. Even so, up to one percent of asbestos can be included in products.
Mining Industry Workers
Miners and those who work closely with industrial metals come into direct contact with silica, asbestos, and dust more than any other occupation. Coming into direct contact with these airborne particles on a daily basis leaves such workers at serious risk. They should keep a close watch on their health and contact a doctor in the case of serious chest pain or chronic respiratory issues.
As an average adult spends between 30-50 hours a week at work, the effects of breathing in dangerous airborne particles can add up over time. It’s important to realize the importance of one’s respiratory health and minimizing exposure to toxic materials. Talking about air quality and the types of airborne toxins are may be present can help inform what precautions to take. Testing the environment for toxins prior to work is ideal, although all situations don’t allow for it. If both employers and workers are aware of the issues and potential risks then employee safety can improve.