Occupational COPD: 4 Major Causes

Most cases of COPD are caused by smoking, but it isn’t the only reason people develop the chronic respiratory disease. Occupational causes of COPD are responsible for an estimated 15% of cases. There are many on-the-job hazards that can contribute to COPD in workers, and these 4 occupations present some of the highest risks.

4 Biggest Causes of Occupational COPD

1. Welding

This type of metal work releases a variety of gases and fumes into the air. It’s crucial that welders work in well-ventilated areas and wear proper safety gear. Failing to do so can cause a variety of injuries and illnesses.

  • Exposure to welding fumes is linked to increased rates of COPD, and accelerated COPD in people who smoke.
  • Exposure to manganese in welding fumes has been linked to negative neurological effects, causing tremors similar to Parkinson’s disease.
  • Welding metals with cadmium coating (commonly used to prevent steel from rusting) can cause lung diseases like COPD and even kidney failure.

2. Agricultural Work

Exposed to a wide variety of potentially irritating chemicals, agricultural workers are often observed to have higher rates of lung diseases like COPD and asthma. Among the many contributing factors are:

  • Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gases
  • Pesticides and fungicides
  • Diesel fumes
  • Organic dust

Occupational diseases like COPD are seen more frequently in agricultural workers of low socioeconomic status, suggesting that there are more deep-seated factors involved than just on-the-job hazards.  

3. Construction

On top of exhaust fumes, loud noises and unrelenting UV rays, construction workers are frequently exposed to silica dust. Silica is a component of common building materials like cement, drywall, brick, tile, and asphalt. When these materials are disturbed (drilling, chipping, grinding, etc.), silica dust is released into the air. Potential health hazards associated with inhaling silica dust include:

  • Silicosis: An irreversible lung disease where nodules and scarring develop around silica particles trapped in the lungs.
  • COPD: Exposure to silica and other chemicals like asbestos and cement dust make construction workers more likely to develop COPD than the general population.
  • Cancer: Silica dust has been linked to instances of lung cancer.

4. Coal Work

Anyone outside of the industry isn’t likely to be exposed to coal dust, but for those who are, the negative respiratory effects are undeniable.

  • Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP): Also known as black lung disease, this illness is caused by a buildup of coal dust in the lungs that cannot be removed by the body.
  • Although coal miners are most associated with CWP, coal trimmers, graphite miners and millers, as well as workers in carbon electrode or carbon black manufacturing are also at risk.
  • In addition to CWP, prolonged exposure to coal dust also increases the likelihood of developing COPD.

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