Occupational Lung Disease

Everyone has a right to be safe at work and looking after your lungs is no exception. Most of us never stop to think about our breathing, it’s just something we do. In fact, research shows that almost half (46%) of all Australians rarely or never think about their lung health. We’re all used to thinking about our heart, skin and breast health but our lungs are equally important. Breathing is a symbol of life and every part of your body needs oxygen from the air you breathe to survive.

Who is at risk?

For some people, the environment they work in may expose them to dust, gas or fumes which can be harmful to the lungs. These workplaces are common in the mining, manufacturing and agricultural sectors. Whether you work as a stonemason, baker, farmer, miner, builder or painter, the environment you work in could impact on your lung health. However, there are simple things you and your employer can do to protect yourself and your mates.

What is occupational lung disease?

Occupational lung diseases are diseases of the lung that occur due to breathing in dust, gases and fumes in the work environment. They are an important and under-recognised cause of respiratory ill health in Australia (1). These lung diseases are a preventable and treatable cause of much sickness, disability and death. In addition to the traditional “dust diseases”, occupational lung disease encompasses a wide spectrum of disorders. Some of the most common examples include:

  • Work-related asthma
    • Asthma is a common long-term condition that can affect people of all ages. People with asthma have sensitive airways resulting in inflammation (swelling) in the airways. The airways narrow during a flare-up, which can sometimes make it difficult to breathe.i
    • Work-related asthma includes both worsening of asthma control (work-exacerbated asthma) and new-onset asthma (occupational asthma) due to workplace conditions.ii
    • Symptoms of asthma include:
      • Wheeze
      • Tight chest
      • Cough
      • Being short of breath
    • Breathing in substances at work can also affect the lining of the nose, causing sneezing and a runny or blocked nose. This is called rhinitis, and can be an early warning sign of work-related asthma.


  • Asbestos-related conditions
    • Asbestos is a group of naturally forming minerals that are widely distributed in nature. It is a highly toxic, insidious and environmentally persistent material that was widely used in the production of insulation and construction materials. Asbestos has been banned in Australia since 2003.
    • Asbestos related diseases can take many years to develop, in some cases up to 20–40 years after exposure. While some asbestos related diseases affect the inside of the lungs the majority affect the pleura. The pleura is a thin membrane that lines the surface of the lungs and the inside of the chest wall outside the lungs. Asbestos fibres can irritate the lung tissue and may cause a number of diseases.  Asbestos related diseases include: MesotheliomaLung cancer and Asbestosis.
    • Symptoms can include:
      • Being short of breath
      • Cough
      • Wheeze
      • Being very tired
      • Pain in the chest
      • Swollen fingertips
  • Silicosis
    • Silica dust is found in some stone, rock, sand, gravel and clay. The most common form is quartz. Silica can also be found in bricks, tiles, concrete and some plastic. When these materials are worked on, silica is released as a fine dust that is easily to breathe in.iii
    • Silicosis is a type of lung condition caused by breathing in a fine dust that is created when working with certain types of stone, rock, sand and clay, called respirable silica dust. Breathing in silica dust over a long period of time can cause lung tissue to harden or scar (fibrosis), making it harder to breathe.
    • Symptoms of silicosis include:
      • Being short of breath
      • Chest pain
      • Fatigue
      • Severe coughi


  • Coal dust pneumoconiosis (Black Lung)

    Coal dust pneumoconiosis (Black Lung) is caused by long-term exposure to high concentrations of respirable coal dust. The disease commonly takes 10 years or more to develop.  The body reacts to dust particles by forming layers of scar tissue over the affected area. Beyond the early stages, a person may start to experience shortness of breath, wheezing and a productive (chesty) cough.iv



  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
    • COPD is an umbrella term for a group of lung conditions that get worse over time including emphysema and chronic bronchitis COPD affects the flow of air out of the breathing tubes.
    • COPD can be caused by exposure to occupational or environmental pollutants.
    • Symptoms tend to come on gradually and can include:
      • Shortness of breath
      • A repetitive cough
      • Excess phlegm or mucus production

    Find out more, here.

  • Other pneumoconiosis

    Such as hard metal lung disease, chronic beryllium disease, talcosis.

  • Hypersensitivity pneumonitis

    Such as farmers lung, bagassosis.

[i] European Lung Foundation, On the building or construction site. Available: https://yourlungsatwork.europeanlung.org/en/factsheets/on-site

[ii] Australian Asthma Handbook, Work-related asthma, Available: https://www.asthmahandbook.org.au/clinical-issues/work-related-asthma

[iii] Cancer Australia, Silica dust. Available: https://www.cancer.org.au/preventing-cancer/workplace-cancer/silica-dust.html

[iv] Health assessment information for coal mine workers, 2017, Queensland Government. Available: https://www.business.qld.gov.au/industries/mining-energy-water/resources/safety-health/mining/medicals/dust-lung-disease