Shining a Light On The Importance of Lung Health

Working in the trade industry brings with it a number of occupational hazards and dangers.

We’ve covered some of these in previous blogs and this month, we’ll be focusing on Occupational Lung Disease.

Occupational Lung Disease (OLD) encompasses many work-related respiratory diseases caused by breathing in dust, gases, fumes, mist, and other materials while at work.

It’s an under-recognised occupational issue, but Safework Australia is highlighting this disease in their Clean Air, Clean Lungs campaign to bring more awareness to these preventable diseases.

There are many different kinds of Occupational Lung Diseases, including work-related asthma, silicosis, coal dust pnuemoconiosis aka Black Lung, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and hypersensitivity pneumonitis, among others. 

What Causes Occupational Lung Disease?

The most common of these is occupational asthma, primarily caused by inhaling certain irritants such as dust, gases, vapours, and fumes at work.

Most cases of OLD are a direct result of exposure to inorganic dust material during manufacturing, processing, or mining. 

The smaller the particles the more damage they can do to the lungs. And while most trade occupations carry some risk of OLD, some jobs leave workers more susceptible than others to specific OLD’ss. For example, Black Lung is almost exclusively a miner’s disease, however, anyone processing the coal above ground is also at risk. 

As a business owner or OHS officer, it’s your responsibility to do everything possible to keep your staff safe.

While it’s your workers who are at the highest risk of developing OLD, you should also keep in mind that your site office staff, visitors to the site office or workshop, and anyone else who spends time regularly in their environment is also exposed to the hazard. 

Risk Factors

Unfortunately, the very nature of certain workplaces lend themselves to being more hazardous than others. Coal mines, factories or other areas with high levels of toxins such as asbestos, smoke, or gases are particularly dangerous. 

The four key industries that have been identified as being particularly at risk are: 

Manufacturers– fumes and dust

Construction– concrete dust, fumes from welding

Engineered Stoneworkers– silica dust

Agricultural workers-pesticides, chemicals, and fuel 

Your workers are potentially being exposed to arsenic, asbestos coal dust, diesel exhaust fumes, nanoparticles, nickel, silica, tobacco smoke, and more. Any and all of these can increase the risk of developing OLD if exposed to them frequently.

It’s important to know what symptoms to be on the lookout for. Some of these diseases can be insidious and certain symptoms are easily mistaken for other respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis. 

The main symptoms of Occupational Lung Diseases are: 

  • Chest pain 
  • Tightness of the chest
  • Persistent cough (and in the case of Black Lung, coughing up a black substance)
  • Irregular breathing patterns
  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath and gets worse with activity)

Due to the wide variety of occupational lung diseases, some symptoms or complications aren’t necessarily relevant for all of the related diseases. 

If you notice any of the above presenting one of your staff, you should encourage them to go see a doctor. 

Getting Diagnosed and Treated

The doctor may order a battery of tests including a chest X-ray, CT scan, blood tests, bronchoscopy or pulmonary function tests. 

There aren’t any single treatments for occupational lung disease. Doctors will encourage the patient to stop smoking if they’re a smoker, and eat a well-balanced diet as well as exercise regularly to build lung strength. 

They may also suggest oxygen therapy, antihistamines, bronchodilators to open lung passages. Serious cases may even require a lung transplant.

As the business owner, it’s your job not only to provide protective masks but to ensure that all of the workers wear them when around airborne dust and irritants, as a preventative measure and in the case of one of your staff being diagnosed. 

If one of your workers is diagnosed, you need to be prepared to change their environment, implement additional measures, or even change that worker’s role entirely. 

Prevention is Better Than Cure

As with many things, prevention is always better than cure. Therefore, it’s vital that you take preventative measures to mitigate the risk of one of your staff members developing an OLD.

Here are some steps you can take: 

  • Encourage your staff to stop smoking  
  • Provide protective facial masks or even respirators for anyone working directly with hazardous substances. Ensure these are worn.
  • Encourage your workers to see their doctor and familiarise themselves with their lung function so they can monitor and notice a change sooner rather than later
  • Hire specially trained OHS experts to assess your workshop or job site to evaluate the risk factors so you can eliminate or manage the risks. 
  • Increase ventilation
  • Ensure your workers are aware of the dangers of OLD’s
  • Monitor potential exposure regularly
  • Keep up to date with new technologies and measures to prevent workplace exposure

Lung health has never been more crucial than now. Although COVID-19 can affect anyone, those with respiratory weakness are more at risk of complications if they contract the virus. 

Safework Australia’s Clean Air, Clean Lungs campaign serves to bring awareness to business owners all over Australia. Use the hashing #clearlungs to showcase your preventative measures. 
If you’d like any more information on implementing OHS measures in your workplace, contact us on [email protected]

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