An Overview of Occupational Diseases Caused by Work Exposures

Understand whether you’re at risk of developing an occupational disease due to work exposures.

An occupational disease can be caused by work exposures to irritants like dust, fibers, fumes, chemicals, and molds. If you work around these substances and inhale them, or if they come into contact with your skin, you could be at risk for developing an occupational disease. Occupational diseases, such as asbestosis (caused by exposure to asbestos) and black lung disease (caused by exposure to coal dust) can be serious and life-threatening. Occupational diseases can take years to develop, often producing few or no symptoms until the disease has progressed to a serious or fatal stage. Fortunately, the more you know about the types of exposures that cause occupational diseases, the earlier you can spot the signs and get treatment.

What Is an Occupational Disease?

An occupational disease is different from an injury caused by an accident at the workplace, although both are covered under workers’ comp. An injury happens suddenly, such as when a worker catches an arm in a machine or slips and falls at work. By contrast, occupational diseases often develop slowly and silently over a number of months or years. Because symptoms can appear gradually, you might be unaware that a disease is developing until it’s too late.

Occupational diseases are often caused by exposures to certain dusts, chemicals, and other materials found at the workplace. Workers who are exposed to dusty conditions are especially at risk, including those whose work involves mining, drilling, or blasting rock. Even small amounts of certain dusts like silica (commonly found in quartz) can cause disease.

Not everyone who is exposed to harmful substances will develop an occupational disease though. Only those who are particularly sensitive to these materials will end up developing diseases from exposure. For example, even though your coworkers are exposed to the same materials, you might be one of only a few people at work who develop an occupational disease.

Occupational diseases sometimes produce symptoms that mimic other common health problems. For example, you might blame a cough on your smoking habit or on a stubborn cold. Or, if you have sinus problems or asthma, you might think that allergens outside of work are causing your symptoms. But your job may be the real culprit. If you have any symptoms, such as a lingering cough, wheezing, or difficulty breathing, do not ignore them. You might be one of the unlucky people whose work exposure is causing an occupational disease.

Catching a disease in its early stage is important because you can get treatment and stop further exposures to the harmful substance. You should pay attention to any unusual changes in your health and tell your doctor about any substances at work that might be causing your symptoms. Your doctor should be able to advise you on whether your symptoms are work-related and refer you to a specialist.

Where Can Dangerous Exposures Occur?

Occupational diseases can be caused by thousands of different workplace exposures. It’s impossible to list every harmful substance that can cause an occupational disease. In fact, there are hundreds of workplace exposures that can cause occupational asthma alone. And, new job site exposures are still being discovered today. However, there are certain substances that are commonly known to cause occupational diseases, including:

  • Dusts. Dust is a common cause of workplace disease, including coal dust, silica dust (found in rocks such as quartz), crop dust (especially hay crops and cotton crops), and wood dust.
  • Fumes. Workers who are exposed to fumes are at risk of developing occupational diseases, including fumes from diesel fuel, welding tools, and products made with polyurethane (commonly used in home furnishings and other household products).
  • Fibers. Certain fibers also put workers at risk, including asbestos and flock (used for carpeting, blankets, and other similar items).

What Should You Do if You Suspect You Have an Occupational Disease?

If you are concerned that you may have an occupational disease, see your doctor right away. Explain your symptoms and the substances you come into contact with on the job. It’s very important for your doctor to take a detailed work history so he or she can order the right tests and make a proper diagnosis.

With most occupational diseases, it is crucial to reduce or stop the exposure to the harmful substance. This may mean that you have to leave your job. Or, you might be able to continue working by wearing protective gear, such as masks, respirators, and gloves.

As soon as you suspect that your disease was caused by exposures at work, you should file a workers’ comp claim. State workers’ compensation laws cover occupational diseases. If your claim is accepted, you will be eligible for the same benefits available in other workers’ comp cases, including medical benefits, temporary disability, and permanent disability benefits.

You may also be able to file a lawsuit against a third party that manufactured, distributed, or installed the toxic substance. For example, if you develop mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos, you may have a claim against the manufacturer, supplier, or contractor that played a role in your exposure. For more information, see Nolo’s article on when you can sue outside the workers' compensation system.

For help finding a workers’ comp lawyer who is familiar with occupational diseases caused by work exposures, see Nolo’s article on finding a workers’ comp lawyer. If you plan on suing the manufacturer of the toxic work substance, Nolo’s article on finding a personal injury lawyer can help.

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