Protecting your lungs at work

Most of us take breathing for granted. But when you breathe in dust, fumes, gases or other hazardous agents at work every day, it can make a difference to your health, now and in the future. Learn about Occupational Lung Diseases and what your risk is.

What am I at risk of?

Exposure to hazardous agents can cause lung disease. ‘Hazardous agents’ are substances, mixtures or articles that can pose a significant risk to a person’s health and safety, particularly if they are not managed correctly. If you have a pre-existing lung condition like asthma, exposure to hazardous agents can also worsen your condition. 

Diseases caused by breathing in hazardous agents are known as Occupational Lung Diseases (or work-related lung diseases). The term covers a wide variety of different lung diseases, such as:  

  • Pneumoconiosis 
  • Asbestosis 
  • Silicosis 
  • Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis 
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease 
  • Hypersensitivity pneumonitis 
  • Mesothelioma  
  • Work-related asthma 
  • Occupational lung infections. 

The time it takes to develop an Occupational Lung Disease varies. Some can develop within months or years of work, and some can develop long after you have left the job – up to decades later. Occupational asthma (a type of work-related asthma) can develop soon after starting a job 

While you may have been told that exposure to hazardous agents and the risks that come with it are just part of the job, that’s not the case. Everyone has a right to be safe at work and your lung health is no exception. Occupational Lung Diseases are preventable.  

Who is at risk?

If you are exposed to hazardous agents while at work, you’re at risk of developing an Occupational Lung Disease. If you work in the following occupations or industries, and/or with certain types of materials, you are at an even higher risk of developing an Occupational Lung Disease.

Occupations / industries: 

  • Agriculture
  • Building and construction
  • Mining and quarrying, including open-cut mines


  • Artificial (engineered) stone, e.g. stonemasons
  • Bioaerosols, e.g. soil and animal dander

Other common hazardous agents include:  

  • Dusts, e.g. silica dust, coal dust, asbestos
  • Chemicals, e.g. cleaning products, isocyanates
  • Fumes / gases, e.g. welding

Hazardous agents can be hard to identify, so it’s important to actively protect your lung health, particularly if you’re working in an at-risk environment. Some of the most hazardous agents, such as silica dust, are not visible to the naked eye. Therefore, the level of visible dust (or similar) is not a good indicator of its potential risk to your lung health.

People working in areas that are near hazardous agents, such as administration staff working in areas where dust, fumes, gases or other hazardous agents may be present, can also be at risk of developing an Occupational Lung Disease. While this is less likely, it can happen. Joanna, a young mother-of-two, developed silicosis while working as an administration officer in a building located near a quarry.