Occupational Respiratory Diseases

Occupational lung diseases are defined as any lung or breathing impairments arising out of occupational exposure to lung irritants or toxicants. These diseases include disorders that affect any or all parts of the respiratory system, including the lung, nose, mouth, throat, chest wall and diaphragm, as well as the entire neuromuscular system that makes it possible to breathe.

Occupational lung diseases can be either acute or chronic (short- or long-term), but most are chronic, exist for years even decades and are commonly treatable but not curable. Exceptions would include certain kinds of respiratory cancers, where surgery either removes or corrects the cause of the breathing difficulty, as is the case with successful bronchotracheal tumor removals and resections.

According to The International Labor Organization, or ILO, a tripartite United Nations agency vested in providing decent work conditions throughout the world, respiratory diseases are second only to workplace fires in the list of ten leading work-related hazards. According to the American Lung Association, occupational lung diseases are the number-one cause of work-related illnesses in the United States both in terms of frequency and severity.

In spite of global efforts to mitigate the risks, occupational asthma has become the most common work-related lung disease in developed countries. In 2000, 2,591 work-related bouts of respiratory illness requiring an average of 2.4 days off occurred in private workplaces in the U.S. The highest total was in the manufacturing sector. For example, in 2002, African Americans making up almost 20 percent of U.S. textile workers - suffered from an age-adjusted mortality rate 80 percent greater than whites due to high rates of Byssinosis, a chronic lung condition caused by inhaling textile dust that results in blocked airways and reduced lung function.

Occupational lung diseases are generally classed into two groups, or pathophysiological types. The first are interstitial diseases, classed as pneumoconiosis a classic example of which is pulmonary fibrosis, which manifests as restricted lung volume and lowered diffusion capacity on X-rays and pulmonary function tests. The second are obstructive airway diseases like asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which do not always show up in X-rays or other scanning methods and are usually diagnosed based on symptoms, reported histories of exposures and pulmonary function tests.

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