Respiratory Health and Safety on the Job
Identifying and mitigating occupational health and safety issues has been in place for nearly 50 years, since the establishment of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) in the early 1970s. This agency was created by Congress to protect private and public employers and their workers. Regulations and protocols are still being modified to improve working conditions for employees, pointing to the authority and effectiveness of OSHA.
A widespread occupational-related concern is respiratory health and safety. OSHA’s mission is to ensure the protection of employees in dangerous working environments that could expose them to disease and injuries. This protection has reduced the ongoing chemical, hazardous waste, and airborne pollutant impacts on the respiratory system.
By focusing on the acts and standards set to enforce quality health and safety measures, employees and employers can have peace of mind in a secure work setting. The first step is to recognize which jobs pose the highest risk for respiratory complications.
While any job with improper working conditions could pose similar health threats, the following positions are habitually known as high-risk:
● Construction workers
● Agricultural workers
● Manufacturer/Industrial workers
These are just some of the predominant fields where employees must face respiratory issues. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), occupational risks due to carcinogens and airborne particles account for a percentage of specific chronic diseases: 13% result in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 11% asthma, and 9% lung cancer.
Occupational cancer, chronic bronchitis, and asthma from air pollution are part of the work-related non-communicable diseases (NCD) that employees may be prone to experiencing or developing without mandated protocols and regulations. Even with these laws, workers and management have to enforce and understand all potential health and safety hazards during a project.
Particulate matter (PM) correlates to respiratory health in the workplace, as PM can contain a diverse amount of problematic pollutants. PM is often the by-product of industrial factories, fires, construction, and exhaust. The air can become contaminated with soot, mold, dust, ashes, and other toxic fumes.
When PM is microscopic, or finer in size, its potential to cause respiratory disease increases because it can reach deeper into the lungs.
PM is also broken down into inorganic and organic, the difference is whether it contains carbon. Organic PM is a substance that does “contain carbon, excluding simple carbon oxides, sulfides, and metal carbonates.”
Among these PMs, silicosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer, occupational asthma, and byssinosis are all induced by known carcinogens and toxins that lead to respiratory conditions.
● Silicosis - a condition that may develop into lung cancer, bronchitis or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder, or Tuberculosis. Respirable crystalline silica dust is the main cause of silicosis, often exposed due to occupations that deal with glass production, metal work, concrete and masonry work, construction, mining, and asphalt/roadwork. The immediate symptoms of silicosis are consistent with poor respiratory health like shortened breath, chest pain, coughing, and fever.
● Mesothelioma - a type of cancer in the lungs, abdomen, or heart. Exposure to asbestos fibers is the predominant cause of mesothelioma, which affects veterans, senior citizens (as a result of a later diagnosis because it is difficult to detect), construction and agricultural workers, and fire fighters. Asbestos was an additive in manufacturing and building materials and any renovation, deterioration, or handling that disturb this mineral can lead to inhalation and formation of malignant tumors.
● Lung cancer - this cancer may be caused by radon, asbestos, radioactive ores (uranium), or airborne chemicals that can be inhaled: coal products, talc powder, chloromethyl ethers, silica, vinyl chloride, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, and diesel exhaust. Those who work in places that operate with these carcinogens should be aware of the potential risks: construction, agriculture, manufacturing, textiles, automotive repair industry, mining, and transportation.
● Occupational asthma - one of the most common occupational-related diseases in developed countries. The PMs associated with lung cancer are also linked with occupational asthma: fumes, gases, and dust. With persistent exposure, these irritants (hydrochloric acid, ammonia, sulfur dioxide) spur asthmatic symptoms: wheezing, chest pain, shortness of breath, and increased allergic reactions as the body’s response to these harmful chemicals.
● Byssinosis - a form of occupational asthma and a rare lung disease from inhaling agricultural products: hemp, raw flax, and cotton particles. Flu-like symptoms appear in severe cases and this disease affects mostly textile industry workers. Unlike the previously listed diseases, byssinosis is not chronic or life-threatening. However, like the others, it is a respiratory condition that demands attention in order to prevent it entirely.
The next step, after identifying the most at-risk positions associated with developing respiratory health conditions on the job, is aiming to alleviate them in the workforce. OSHA’s efforts to avert the numerous health and safety violations have been historical in granting peace-of-mind and protection for employees across theU.S.
Knowing the risks and ensuring that employers enforce and layout the regulations to protect employees is an essential step to take action against unnecessary workplace hazards.
Wearing proper protection, educating every employee, hiring occupational health and safety experts to point out potential threats when needed, installing ventilation, and other OSHA-approved safety measurements are typical practices to take action against impending endangerments.