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Work-Related Lung Diseases – causes and how to prevent them

As part of the HSE ‘Work Right’ campaign, HSE Inspectors will be visiting businesses to ensure you are managing risks of work-related lung diseases.

As the name suggests, work-related or occupational lung diseases are those that are caused by prolonged exposure to fumes and different kinds of dust at work.

Breathing in dusts, gases, fumes, and vapours in the workplace can cause serious, long-term lung damage and often incurable health problems. Statistics show that in Great Britain during 2019/2020, 12,000 people died from lung disease due to past exposures at work.

Is your business aware of the causes and how to prevent them?

High Risk Industries

The following are the industries that are higher risk in potential for work related lung diseases, and this is due to the higher level of risk of exposure to dusts, gases, fumes, and vapours in the workplace.

  • Construction – Welding
  • Stonework – Cement and concrete manufacture
  • Woodworking – Baking and milling
  • Quarry work – Paint spraying

What are (some) Occupational Lung Diseases?

  • Asbestosis – Caused by inhaling fibres of asbestos
  • Mesothelioma – Caused by inhaling fibres of asbestos
  • Silicosis – Caused by inhalation of silica dust
  • Occupational Asthma – Caused by workplace irritants, like gases, fumes, vapours, and various kinds of dust. (Occupational asthma is work-related lung disease that can be reversed if detected early on)
  • Pulmonary Edema, Pneumonitis, Lung cancer, Mesothelioma, Chronic respiratory problems including Bronchitis, Asthma, Pneumonia, Emphysema, Pneumoconiosis, Silicosis, Siderosis. – Caused by welding


What signs could indicate that you have a work-related lung disease?

There are different signs to be aware of for different diseases.

Asthma: You may notice symptoms shortly after you’ve started a new job or work exposures have changed. If the symptoms improve when you are away from work (for example when you are on holiday) then further investigation is needed to see if the workplace is the cause.

COPD and Mesothelioma: These conditions have a much slower onset and usually develop after many years of exposure. If you know you’ve been exposed to materials that could cause these conditions, and you start to notice symptoms such as shortness of breath or persistent coughing, then this could be an indication of COPD or mesothelioma.



How do You Prevent Occupational Lung Diseases?

Employers have a legal duty to protect their workers and must do this through following the hierarchy of control.

  • Elimination
  • Substitution
  • Engineering controls
  • Administrative control(s)
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)


When following the hierarchy of control, we are always looking to eliminate the risk of exposure, but unfortunately this is not always possible. We must then seek to control exposure through engineering controls such as extraction of containment. Due to the nature of exposure to dusts, gases, fumes, and vapours, engineering controls may not fully eliminate the risk of exposure, so we may still need Respiratory Protective Equipment.

Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE)

RPE is a particular type of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), used to protect the individual wearer against the inhalation of hazardous substances in the workplace air.  You will require RPE that is adequate, right for the hazard and that reduces exposure to the level required to protect the wearer’s health.

To select RPE that will protect the wearer, you will need a basic understanding of:

  • the hazardous substance and the amount in the air (exposure)
  • the substance in the air (eg gas, particle, vapour)
  • the type of work being carried out
  • any specific wearer requirements, such as other PPE.

Additional Factors

Remember, you may also need to carry out air quality checks to measure what substances are in the air and level of exposure to your workers. Medical surveillance of employees may also be necessary.

If you would like further advice, please contact the ProAktive Health and Safety team on 01302 341 344 or 0114 243 9914.

By Chris Longden CMIOSH – Risk Consultant

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