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.

Types of Occupational Lung Disease:

  • 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

    Find out more here.

  • 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.

Occupational Lung Disease National Directory

This directory is for employees, employers, members of the public and people living with an Occupational Lung Disease (OLD)*. If you have been exposed to dust, fumes, gases or other hazardous agents in your workplace or while undergoing renovations, or, you are living with an OLD (or a carer), this directory is for you.

In this directory, you will find information on compensation and health monitoring, as well as information and support services and resources, which can be filtered by your relevant state or territory. If you are living with an OLD, or are a carer, you can use the filter to select the information that is relevant to your condition.

*The term, occupational lung disease, covers a wide variety of different lung conditions which are caused by breathing in dust, fumes, gases or other hazardous agents in the work environment. Examples of conditions include asbestosis, work-related asthma, coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), mesothelioma and silicosis.

Are you exposed to dust, fumes, gases or other hazardous agents?

This quiz is a tool to help you find out whether you may be at risk of developing an occupational lung disease due to exposure to hazardous agents in your workplace.  

The quiz will take you through whether you are experiencing any symptoms and if so, what they are and when you experience them, as well as what site would best describe your workplace and the agents you may be exposed to.  

You can also learn about the hazards that may be present in your workplace, as well as steps you can take to protect your lung health at work.  

Disclaimer: Please note these resources do not constitute your own independent professional advice. It is always recommended to seek your own legal, financial and medical advice to support the material available in this directory. Lung Foundation Australia makes every effort to ensure the material contained within this directory is accurate and up to date. Please contact our Information and Support Centre at enquiries@lungfoundation.com.au should you have any issues accessing a resource.

[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