4 Occupational Diseases and Prevention Tips

View all blog posts under Articles

Person pressing a health button on a keyboardIn the early 1900s, public awareness toward work-related injuries and diseases increased as federal and state government began compensating civil employees for their health complications due to workplace hazards. Even with growing public awareness, the effects of work-borne disease continued to cause long-term issues, including an egregious number of annual fatalities. According to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), there were roughly 49,000 deaths in the U.S. caused by occupational diseases, and that statistic was derived from U.S. mortality data gathered in 1997.

Occupational diseases (ODs) arise from workplace conditions that may be hazardous to certain workers. There are various kinds of OD hazards, depending on 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.

The following are some common examples of occupational diseases, along with some useful tips regarding their treatment and prevention.

Occupational Asthma

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 intense heat for shorter periods, they may develop a heat illness such as stroke, exhaustion or cramps.

In 2014, 2,630 workers were documented as suffering heat illness, and 18 heat-related deaths were reported, according to OSHA 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.

Learn More:

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.

Recommended Readings:

Integrating Effective Health and Wellness Strategies in the Workplace

The Demand for Safety Professionals in the U.S

Understanding Human Factors in Occupational Safety