Occupational respiratory disease, which is any lung condition that occurs as a result of being exposed to toxins at work, is one of the main causes of work-related mortality in New Zealand: accounting for 248 deaths per year. The types of jobs that are the most harmful to lungs include mining, manufacturing, construction, and agriculture; these lines of work often produce ‘airborne risks’, including dust, mists, vapours and gases that can damage lungs when inhaled.
For airborne substances to be harmful to the respiratory system, they must be inhaled into the lungs. Dust particles are too small to be filtered out by the respiratory system and instead they travel deep into the lungs, where they cause damage and scarring to lung tissue. Inhalation of certain gases, fumes and vapours causes inflammation of the small airways and scarring of the tiny air sacs in the lungs (alveoli).
It may take many months or years of exposure to harmful substances at work before symptoms of an occupational respiratory disease arise and the worker becomes aware that they have something wrong with their lungs. This can make it hard to know for certain that a respiratory illness was caused by inhaling harmful substances at work and even harder to pin-point what the harmful substance is.
Lung cancer, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are all examples of occupational respiratory diseases that can be caused by long-term exposure to airborne risks.
Even short-term exposure to harmful substances can worsen existing lung conditions. For example, some people may find that their asthma only flares up when they are at work.
What to do if you’re worried about your lung health at work
Workplace respiratory risks can be worrying for anyone, but if you already have an existing respiratory condition, you may be even more concerned. It is important you know what you can do if you feel your lung health is being compromised at work.
It is the employer’s responsibility to provide and maintain a safe working environment to reduce the risk of employees inhaling harmful substances. They can do this by providing well-fitted masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). They can also invest in air ventilation systems or HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters, which can remove airborne risks in the air including: pollen, dirt, dust and bacteria.
If you work in a job with potentially hazardous substances, lung health monitoring is essential, as it can show signs of harm to a worker’s respiratory health and may reflect the need to increase safety measures and reduce further exposure to airborne risks. It is your employer’s responsibility to ensure your lung health is monitored.
If you feel like your employer is not doing enough to keep your workplace safe, you must voice your concerns. Your first step should be talking to someone at your workplace about your safety concerns; this could be a supervisor, a Health and Safety Representative or an occupational health specialist, if there is one present at your workplace. If you feel confident to, you can even suggest an improvement that you feel would benefit your respiratory health. Remember, you are entitled to contribute to health and safety decisions at your workplace.
If you feel that your concerns are not being addressed, you can contact your union or WorkSafe, New Zealand’s primary workplace health and safety regulator, at 0800 030 040. Calls are taken anonymously. It is the job of WorkSafe to inspect the safety practices carried out in workplaces and ensure that a business is doing all it reasonably can to prevent harm to its employees.
If you work, or have worked, in an industry where you think you have been exposed to airborne risks without adequate protection or you develop symptoms like a new cough and wheeziness, you should visit your healthcare practitioner and ask them to carry out lung tests. It is better to get your respiratory health checked out, rather than to leave a potential lung condition untreated.
If you believe that you are currently being exposed to a serious health risk, you have the right to stop work until the hazard has been removed or safety measures have been put in place to prevent you from coming in to contact with the hazard in a dangerous manner.
Silicosis: an ever-growing concern
Recently, concerns have been growing around the use of silica-containing artificial stone, which is used to make bench tops for kitchens and bathrooms. As the stone is cut by workers, silica dust is produced. Once inhaled, the dust can begin to cause permanent damage to the lungs and respiratory illness, called silicosis, can develop.
The symptoms of silicosis include a persistent cough, shortness of breath and fatigue. As the disease progresses, healthy lung tissue will be replaced by scar tissue, which will make it hard to breathe. Silicosis can severely reduce quality of life, and in extreme cases it can be fatal as the lungs stop working properly. It can take up to 10 years after exposure for symptoms of silicosis to appear, meaning people who have worked with silica-containing substances must now play a worrying waiting-game to see if they develop symptoms.
As more is learnt about the dangers of exposure to silica dust, pressure has been put on both Australian and New Zealand Government ministers to ban the domestic use of silica and prevent further cases of work-related silicosis.
Airborne risks and the industries that produce them:
Wood dust – woodworking activities
Silica dust – stone cutting
Flour dust – baking-related
Concrete dust – construction jobs
Mouldy crop dust – farming and agriculture jobs
Welding fumes – construction, manufacturing or structural jobs
Acetone, ethanol, chloroform, styrene and petrol fumes – science laboratories, factories, oil refineries, nail salons, car repair shops
Paint mist – painting and decorating jobs
Asbestos – building inspectors