Work-related lung problems are unfortunately quite common. Experts estimate that up to 17% of adult asthma in the U.S. may be caused by work exposure, and even when the condition is not due to work, an estimated 22% of adults see their asthma symptoms worsened in the workplace.
Thankfully, most types of occupational lung disease are preventable, says Philip Harber, MD, MPH, professor in the department of community, environment, and policy at the University of Arizona Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. "Simple control measures can markedly reduce exposure and the risk," he says.
Here are 13 fields that can be risky for your lung health.
Workers who inhale dust in demolitions or renovations can be at risk for lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis, a disease that causes scarring and stiffening of lungs.
Many spray-in-place insulation products can lead to asthma if exposure is not properly controlled.
Wearing protective gear, including a respirator, when working around older buildings and avoiding smoking (and secondhand smoke) can help.
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Factory workers can be exposed to dust, chemicals, and gases, placing them at risk for both asthma and COPD.
In food plants, diacetyl—a flavoring agent used in microwave popcorn and some packaged snacks—has been linked to a sometimes deadly disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, a close relative of COPD. The good news? Taking some easy steps such as closing the lids on mixing vessels can reduce the potential risks.
Newer materials, such as nanoparticles and ITO (indium tin oxide) used to make LCD screens, introduce novel risks to workers.
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Most aspects of agricultural work lead to significant exposures. For example, many agricultural jobs involve exposure to endotoxin, a product of bacterial growth. Modern animal feeding operations also often put very large numbers of cows, chickens, or other animals in close quarters, sometimes in a single building. In addition to allergic responses, human workers may be potentially exposed to high levels of toxic materials such as ammonia or hydrogen sulfide from manure collection pits. These exposures can even be deadly.
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About 8% to 12% of health care workers are sensitive to latex, which can cause a severe asthma-type reaction. Dr. Harber notes that a latex allergy can even end careers.
"Even if you're not personally using latex gloves, little bits of latex get in the air when coworkers remove their gloves," he says. "We can use non-latex gloves in most situations, and only use latex materials when really necessary. This will really reduce the risk of latex asthma."
Byssinosis, also called brown lung disease, is common among textile workers who make upholstery, towels, socks, bed linens, and clothes.
Workers can inhale particles released from cotton or other materials. "When cotton is ripped apart, it creates huge amounts of dust and can cause significant airflow obstruction," Dr. Harber says.
Smoking increases the risk. Wearing a mask and improving ventilation in the work environment can help.
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In recent years, we have increasingly recognized that many commonly used disinfectants can cause or worsen asthma, explains Dr. Harber. Hospitals certainly need to disinfect surfaces, but there are ways to help ensure this is done safely to protect workers.
If you work with disinfectants, Dr. Harber says, make sure the area is well ventilated. Disinfecting products should be selected for effectiveness but should also be as non-irritating as possible. Safer, "green" cleaning products should be used whenever possible when cleaning offices and other workplaces.
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Dr. Harber notes that although teaching is considered a "clean, professional job," significant respiratory hazards may be at play. Many older public school buildings have mold growth that can produce irritation and make asthma worse, he explains. In addition, furry animals are often brought to school as class pets, which can lead to asthma in many people. Crowded schools can also become breeding grounds for infections like the flu.
Providing adequate ventilation, good school maintenance, and avoiding unnecessary animals can help keep the air clear in schools. Basic wellness practices apply as well: Students and teachers should cover their coughs and use good hand hygiene to reduce the spread of infections.
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Automotive repair industry
Occupational asthma can be a risk for those in the automobile industry, particularly auto-body repair.
Components of spray-on paints, such as isocyanate and polyurethane products, can irritate skin, create allergies, and cause chest tightness and severe breathing trouble.
"Minor amounts of isocyanates can trigger an asthma attack once you become sensitized to it," Dr. Harber says. "Maybe 5% of spray painters become sensitized. But if you're in the unlucky 5% and get attacks, you should not be around it at all."
Respirators, gloves, goggles, and ventilation can help.
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Delivery truck drivers, those who unload merchandise on loading docks, and railroad industry workers can be at risk for COPD. In these cases, diesel exhaust is a major factor.
Although engines now emit less diesel exhaust, thanks to mechanical improvements and the use of cleaner-burning fuel, diesel exhaust is still dangerously widespread. Staying out of the direct line of exhaust and wearing protective masks help reduce the risk of lung disease. Replacing older diesel equipment–whether in trucking, mining, or transportation–with newer, better-controlled equipment can significantly reduce exposure.
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Miners have long been recognized for their lung disease risks. For many years, better exposure controls have reduced the risk of coal mining, but unfortunately, the problem is coming back, probably due to inadequate exposure control in many small mining operations, Dr. Harber explains.
In addition to pneumoconiosis (scarring of the lung from exposure to coal dust or silica), COPD can occur because of dust exposure. Dr. Harber notes that it's important for government agencies to properly enforce regulations, while miners themselves should identify unsafe conditions and comply with protection practices such as using respirator masks when needed.
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Firefighters can inhale smoke and a wide range of chemicals that may be present in a burning building.
Although the breathing apparatus firefighters use does a good job of protecting them, compliance can be a problem: The equipment isn't always worn, especially during the so-called overhaul phase, when firefighters sift through debris to ensure that the fire doesn't reignite.
Exposure to toxic materials and asbestos is a risk even after the fire is out. It's recommended that firefighters wear respiratory protective equipment during all stages of firefighting.
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Bakers who are exposed to flour dust are at risk of developing allergic sensitization.
Less obvious but just as dangerous can be an asthmatic reaction to enzymes used to alter the consistency of dough. Yet another danger involves allergens shed by bugs, such as beetles, moths, and weevils, which are regrettably sometimes found in flour. Good ventilation and the use of a protective mask can help prevent illness.
Serving drinks in a smoke-filled room puts bartenders at high risk for lung disease, especially if their regular exposure to secondhand smoke goes on over the course of many years. Career bartenders face career-long risks.
Today, many states outlaw smoking in restaurants and bars, which has made a significant difference in the health of people working in this field. Research has shown that respiratory health among bartenders in cities with smoking bans has improved.
If you work in a city that still allows smoking in bars, a good ventilation system can help.