Preventing Respiratory Diseases in the Workplace

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Doctor holding an x-ray of the lungsRespiratory diseases and cancers from the exposure to dangerous materials at work account for about 70% of all occupational disease deaths, according to the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Many workers are at risk for respiratory diseases, and not only manufacturing workers handling dangerous materials.

Occupational Risk

Manufacturing jobs handling dangerous materials, coal miners, and firefighters are all obvious jobs that are exposed to high risk of occupational respiratory diseases. But these make up only a part of the jobs at risk.

Occupants of office buildings, schools, and other types of nonindustrial buildings have reported a range of illnesses and symptoms that can be traced to the building’s dampness. Symptoms reported include headache, fatigue, eye, nose, and throat irritation; rhinitis, sinusitis, or rhinosinusitis; onset or exacerbation of asthma; lower respiratory symptoms; the list goes on.

The respiratory symptoms have been the most studied, and the research shows that there is a connection between respiratory health issues and dampness or mold in the workplace. The dampness allows the growth of microbes, which give of spores, fungal fragments, or whatever substances the microorganisms produce.

Buildings damaged by moisture can give off volatile organic compounds that can also produce respiratory health problems and diseases. Dust, metals, allergens, and other toxins can pose a risk as well.

Respiratory Illnesses and Symptoms

Coughing and wheezing are upper and lower respiratory tract symptoms that can indicate an infection. The onset or exacerbation of asthma is also a sign of exposure to dangerous agents.

Nasal stuffiness, sneezing, or a runny or itchy nose are all signs of rhinitis; sinusitis is usually caused by bacteria or viruses—and, sometimes, fungi—and exhibits symptoms similar to a cold.

Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis is the result of an immune system response to the repeated inhalation of organic matter. It is a serious lung disease whose symptoms fall into two patters: one, sporadic shortness of breath and flu-like symptoms—chills, fever, sweating, fatigue, muscle aches, cough; and two, the gradual development of shortness of breath and cough, frequently co-occurring with weight loss.


The ventilation of the workplace prevents the transmission of airborne microbes and other dangerous agents. The infectious materials can be drawn away and caught in a filter through a local ventilation system.

Frequent hand washing, laundering of work clothes, and keeping a generally clean workplace are other obvious preventative techniques. But, less obviously, it is important to keep the environment dry by rigorously maintaining plumbing and structural integrity. This prevents leaks and water damage, which can lead to the growth of dangerous microbes or release of hazardous airborne agents, as described above. Additionally, causes of building dampness can be prevented with the right construction, materials, and building design.

There are no Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations pertaining to dampness in indoor work places. But there are some state regulations in California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington.

Reporting and Treating

Reporting the symptoms of a respiratory disease as soon as one gets them is crucial, not just so that the worker in question can get treatment and prevent the disease from spreading or getting worse, but because the sooner the illness is identified, the sooner any workplace-related causes can be identified, evaluated, and remedied.

Workers should pay close attention to their symptoms, and if they exude any of the ones detailed above that could indicate a respiratory infection or disease, they should immediately report it to management and seek treatment.

Learn More

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