Occupational Lung Diseases

Repeated exposure to harmful particles, chemicals, vapors or gases while at work can cause a variety of occupational lung diseases. Some of these are fairly well known (such as black lung, affecting unprotected coal miners, or asbestosis, which affects persons who have worked with asbestos). Lung disease due to inhaled particles is called pneumoconiosis.

Different diseases develop depend on the size and kind of particles inhaled and where in the airways of the lungs the inhaled particle ends up. Large particles may get trapped in the nose or the larger airways. Tiny particles may reach the tiny air sacs of the lungs where they may be dissolved and be absorbed by the blood.

Particles that do not get dissolved are removed by defense mechanisms of the lung. These defense mechanisms include:

  • Mucus, which traps and coats particles so they can be coughed out of the body
  • Tiny hairs that lines the airways (cilia) that work to brush inhaled particles upward out of the lung
  • Special cells (macrophages) that engulf the tiniest particles in the air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs


Different types of particles produce different reactions in the body including:

  • Allergies with hay fever-like symptoms. These are a form of asthma. This is typical of particles such as animal dander.
  • Chronic irritation that can scar the lungs. This happens following on-going exposure to quartz dust or asbestos.
  • Cancer of the lungs or the lining of the chest and lungs (mesothelioma), which may be due to asbestos exposure
  • Death of cells in the airways and air sacs of the lungs


Causes and Risk Factors

Many different kinds of particles, mists, vapors or gases can harm the lungs, including:

  • Organic materials (e.g., grain dusts, cotton dust or animal dander)
  • Chemicals
  • Metal salts (e.g., asbestos)

Occupational lung diseases are given different names usually based on the cause of the disease. Some occupational lung diseases and the types of people who are at risk of developing them are:

  • Asbestosis, which is caused by asbestos and can affect those who mine, mill or manufacture asbestos; construction workers who install or remove materials containing asbestos and shipyard workers
  • Benign pneumoconiosis, pneumoconiosis, which may affect welders, iron miners, barium workers and tin workers
  • Beryllium disease, which may affect aerospace workers and metallurgical (castings) workers
  • Black lung, which affects coal workers
  • Byssinosis which may affect people who work with cotton, hemp, jute and flax
  • Flock worker's lung, which may affect people who work with synthetic fiber flocking
  • Hypersensitivity pneumonitis, which may affect workers in office buildings that have air-conditioning systems contaminated by certain fungi and bacteria; swimming pool/spa workers (because of contaminated sprays); and farmers, mushroom workers, bird keepers and other workers exposed to urethanes.
  • Occupational asthma, which may affect people who work with animals, shellfish, irritating gases, vapors and mists, grains, western red cedar wood, castor beans, isocyanates (urethanes), dyes, antibiotics, epoxy resins, tea and enzymes used in making detergent, malt, leather goods, latex, jewelry abrasives and automotive paints.
  • Silicosis, which affects people who work around clay, sand and stone dust (e.g., miners, potters, stone cutters, tunnel workers and sandblasters)
  • Silo filler's disease, which may affect farmers
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