In the early 1900s, public awareness toward work-related injuries and diseases increased as federal and state governments began compensating civil employees for their health complications due to workplace hazards. Even with growing public awareness, the effects of the work-borne disease continued to cause long-term issues, including an egregious number of annual fatalities. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), there are roughly 160 million cases of non-fatal work-related diseases, and 2 million fatal ones, that occur worldwide annually (2015 figures).
Occupational diseases (ODs) arise from workplace conditions that may be hazardous to certain workers. There are various kinds of OD hazards, depending on the job environment, exposure intensity, and worker sensitivities. As stated previously, ODs can cause death if left untreated or steps aren’t taken toward prevention. Recent regulations require most employers to adopt and enforce occupational health and safety programs to battle the dangers of ODs.
Here are some common examples of occupational diseases, along with useful tips regarding their treatment and prevention.
Occupational COVID-19 Exposure
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 added coronavirus to the list of potential occupational diseases workers can contract in the workplace. Certain career fields naturally have a higher exposure risk than others, with healthcare and morgue workers in the pole position, according to OSHA’s “Worker Exposure Risk to COVID-19.”
Those who work directly with people who are known to have the SARS-CoV-2 virus (the virus that causes COVID-19) must take the heaviest precautions while in the workplace. Exposure risk decreases as the number of people a worker comes into contact with also decreases.
Governments and regulatory bodies have promoted COVID-19 prevention guidelines to stem the spread of the highly contagious disease. OSHA, in its “Control and Prevention” website topic, recommends frequent hand washing and use of hand sanitizer (when soap isn’t available), avoidance of face touching, respiratory etiquette (covering mouth while coughing or sneezing), and recognizing personal risk factors.
Work-related factors are responsible for up to 15 percent of asthma sufferers within the U.S., according to OSHA research. Asthma is an illness that produces symptoms such as difficulty breathing, chest tightness, coughing, and other general distress with the respiratory system. Occupational asthma can be caused by myriad factors, from irritants like chlorine or ammonia to allergies associated with animals or materials.
Paint, insulation, insecticides, and almost every environmental factor that can be breathed may cause asthma in workers. The disease affects people differently, with some having stronger immunities than others. Unfortunately, constant or extreme exposure to harmful asthma triggers may cause permanent damage. Preventing occupational asthma can be as simple as avoiding exposure to factors that are known to cause respiratory issues. Any questions about symptoms can be answered and diagnosed by an allergist or immunologist, who may find it necessary to provide medication to combat breathing challenges.
Occupational Contact Dermatitis
One of the most common occupational diseases, skin diseases such as contact dermatitis can be caused by any of the following: allergies, irritants, chemicals, temperatures, radiation, mechanical labor, plants, animals or parasites. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) finds that 13 million workers in the U.S. are at risk of being exposed to variables that may cause skin disease.
Occupational contact dermatitis, or eczema, presents as inflammation of the skin and comprises 90 percent to 95 percent of occupational skin diseases in the U.S. Symptoms may include itching, pain, and redness as well as dry and flaky skin that can be easily treated and prevented. Cool and damp dressings, antihistamines and steroid therapy may be necessary if the contact dermatitis becomes overly aggravated. However, the use of sunscreen, wearing protective clothing, and avoiding hazardous irritants can minimize exposure to problematic variables and prevent any skin disease from initially forming.
Occupational Hearing Loss
Another common occupational disease, like contact dermatitis, is hearing loss due to the workplace. NIOSH says nearly 22 million workers experience noise levels above the Recommended Exposure Limit (REL). Occupational hearing loss is caused by loud noises and ototoxic chemicals. Symptoms range from varying levels of diminished hearing to hearing loss.
NIOSH has set the REL at 85 decibels or less for an eight-hour period or less. Basically, workers should not be exposed to noise that exceeds 85 decibels, preferably for any length of time and certainly not for over eight hours. Besides loud noises, ototoxic chemicals, such as organic solvents and asphyxiants, may also have an effect on a worker’s hearing.
Prevention is the best treatment method for occupational hearing loss. Health and safety professionals use the Hierarchy of Control to regulate noise levels. The most effective method within the hierarchy is eliminating the hazardous noise. This is followed by replacing, controlling, setting time limits, and finally, the least effective method, utilizing personal protective equipment. If a worker’s hearing is too far gone, they may eventually require hearing aids.
Occupational Heat Illness
A harmful occupational disease for those who work in direct sunlight or in hot, non-ventilated areas, heat illness can vary in seriousness depending on exposure. When workers are exposed to heat for long periods of time or an intense heat for shorter periods, they may develop a heat illness such as stroke, exhaustion, or cramps.
Between 1992 and 2017, more than 800 workers died and 70,000 more were seriously injured by heat-related illnesses, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Heat illness can especially affect workers who are 65 years and older, overweight, or affected by heart disease. The symptoms of heat illness rang from weakness, headaches, and sweating, to dizziness, nausea and even fainting. Similar to occupational hearing loss, the best method is prevention. Drinking water regularly, wearing light colors, resting in shady areas, and slowly adapting to high temperatures are best for combating the possible dangers of heat illness.
Innovating Occupational Disease Prevention
There are always new methods to prevent and mitigate dangers, including occupational disease, in the workplace. Some people find they have an interest in problem-solving; a major skill required by health and safety professionals. For these people, working for organizations like OSHA or NIOSH may provide a fulfilling and promising career in preventing occupational diseases.
About Eastern Kentucky University’s Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety Program
Learn to identify and analyze potential workplace hazards, infractions, and risks through a bachelor of science in occupational safety online. At Eastern Kentucky University, you will gain a graduate-level education by industry-experienced educators and fire and safety professionals who are committed to teaching and preparing you for continued success.
ILO.org, “GLOBAL TRENDS ON OCCUPATIONAL ACCIDENTS AND DISEASES” (PDF)
OSHA.gov, “Informational Booklet on Industrial Hygiene”
OSHA.gov, “Worker Exposure Risk to COVID-19”
OSHA.gov, “COVID-19 Prevention”
CDC.gov, “HEAT STRESS”
CDC.gov, Fact Sheet (PDF)
OSHA.gov, “Occupational Asthma”
CDC.gov, “SKIN EXPOSURES & EFFECTS”
American Family Physician, “Occupational Skin Disease”
CDC.gov, “NOISE AND HEARING LOSS PREVENTION”