Certain jobs have an increased risk of workers developing Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, leading to airflow obstruction and breathing-related problems including chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
While smoking remains a major cause of COPD, studies have found occupational hazards also play a significant role in developing the life changing disease. Industries where employees are at risk of exposure to the hazardous dusts and fumes that cause the condition are required by law to take measures to protect worker safety.
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What causes COPD?
More than 1.2 million UK residents have been diagnosed, according to the Taskforce for Lung Health and there are 12,000 deaths each year in Britain due to hazardous substance exposure at work.
Data from the Health and Safety Executive, which monitors workplace safety, suggests 34% of the deaths are because of COPD. There may be an additional 600,000 undiagnosed cases in the UK, according to the COPD Survey 2022.
It has become the second most common lung disease in Britain, with asthma being the first. Up to 30% of those diagnosed have never smoked and studies have confirmed occupational exposure to hazardous substances is an important cause of the disease.
There is currently no cure for COPD. However, treatment options can help people to control the symptoms, slow its progression and reduce the risks of a flare-up.
Which jobs have an increased risk?
Certain jobs have an increased risk of workers developing Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. These are mainly in industries where employees are exposed to hazardous dusts on a daily basis.
Some of the occupations and substances that are recognised as causes are also linked with other diseases, including occupational asthma. When the exposure to a hazardous substance is high and it occurs over a long period of time, this increases the likelihood of an employee developing COPD.
Most bricks, tiles and concrete contain respirable crystalline silica dust. When the materials are worked, the resulting dust is fine enough to be inhaled deeply into the lungs. This can cause life-changing lung diseases such as COPD, silicosis and lung cancer.
Flour and grain workers in the food industry are at an increased risk of developing pulmonary symptoms. According to a study published in Science Direct, there is a strong association between exposure to flour dust and the onset of respiratory issues and lung impairments.
Pottery and ceramic workers
In 2021, more than 500 ceramics workers took part in the Correlation Between Ceramic and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease study. Higher than normal instances of respiratory symptoms including COPD, chronic cough, chest tightness and abnormal lung function were blamed on exposure to hazardous workplace dusts.
Several published health and epidemiologic studies have reported the occurrence of respiratory symptoms, COPD, asthma, emphysema and bronchitis in the rubber manufacturing industry. Exposure to the emissions released during the manufacturing process has been cited as the cause.
In the plastics industry, various chemicals can damage a worker’s health if they are exposed to them. This can result in reduced lung function and COPD. A study of plastics workers, Pulmonary Functions in Plastic Factory Workers, revealed patients with chronic lung disease had been exposed to plastic fibres that had reduced their lung capacity and caused inflammation.
Stonemasonry and construction
Employees in the stone masonry and construction industries may suffer exposure to harmful silicon dust. This increases the risk of lung diseases, primarily COPD, chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
Medical evidence suggests that exposure to welding fumes may cause breathing problems. Studies reveal the lung function of welders declines more rapidly than non-welders and this is linked to conditions normally associated with smokers. Research is continuing to establish a definitive link.
Research suggests textile workers can suffer from organic dust exposure that leads to obstructive lung disease, with features of both COPD and asthma.
How to protect employees from COPD
The HSE monitors harmful exposure to workplace dust and fumes through the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002. Fortunately, COPD is preventable when the right safety measures are in place.
Employers must protect the health of employees by installing dust extraction systems to control particles from a wide range of applications, simply and effectively.
A downdraught bench will draw down harmful dusts and fumes through the extraction bench’s surface into internal filters. Clean air is returned to the room. No installation is required: simply plug it in, switch on and begin work.