Working around dusts, fibers, chemicals, or fumes can put you at risk of developing an occupational disease. Studies have shown that 4% to 10% of all cancers in the United States are caused by work exposures. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than thirteen million Americans are exposed to chemicals at work which can be absorbed through the skin.
Knowing the kinds of jobs that pose an increased risk of occupational disease can help you take preventative steps to protect your health. You’ll be able to recognize the early symptoms of occupational disease and get potentially life-saving medical attention before it’s too late. You’ll also likely be able to file a workers’ compensation claim and receive payments for your medical bills and income loss. For more information on occupational diseases, see Nolo’s article, An Overview of Occupational Diseases Caused by Work Exposures.
Thousands of potentially dangerous workplace substances can cause disease or illness. Although hazardous exposures often happen to workers performing manual labor, such as coal miners or farm workers, they can also happen in a more innocuous setting, such as in an office building where toxic mold is a problem. (For more information, see our article on toxic mold health risks.) Some common jobs with known risks of occupational diseases are listed below. However, even if your occupation is not listed, you can get an idea of what exposures you should be concerned about and what symptoms to watch out for.
Any job that involves mining, drilling or blasting through the earth can expose you to harmful dusts that can cause disease, including silica (the most common mineral found in the earth). Inhaling silica dust can cause silicosis, a serious, incurable, and sometimes deadly form of lung disease. Silica exposure can also lead to lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Shortness of breath and coughing can be signs of silicosis or COPD. Other signs of silicosis can include fatigue, weight loss, fever, and chest pain.
Coal miners are also at risk of developing black lung disease, which can cause permanent scarring of the lungs, difficulty breathing, and even death. For more information, see Nolo’s article, Black Lung Cases in Workers’ Compensation.
Like miners, construction workers who work with concrete, cement, insulation, drywall products, sanding, or drilling tools are also at risk of disease due to silica exposure. Construction workers also at risk due to exposure to wood dust. Wood dust can cause a variety of breathing problems, including nasal and sinus cavity cancer. Wood dust may also cause allergic reactions, asthma, and contact dermatitis (a red, itchy skin rash).
Chemical fumes are also hazardous substances that put construction workers at risk. Products like insulation, paint, polyurethane, blown foam, carpeting, solvents, and glues can all release chemical fumes into the air, causing asthma or chronic bronchitis. Skin contact with these products can also cause contact dermatitis. Watery eyes, nasal irritation, or a sore throat are signs that these exposures are affecting you. If you have these symptoms or chest tightness, wheezing, shortness of breath, or coughing, see your doctor right away.
Another serious exposure is asbestos. Construction workers who work on older buildings may come into contact with asbestos, which can cause asbestosis, a serious form of lung disease, and mesothelioma, a deadly cancer. Nolo’s article, Asbestos in the Workplace, discusses asbestos exposure in more depth and examines a worker’s legal options for pursuing compensation.
The process of welding involves working with molten metal that produces toxic fumes. Many metals themselves are toxic when heated, but metal coatings can also be dangerous. Manganese (used in welding rods) is particularly harmful and is present in all welding fumes according to the CDC. Manganese can cause a Parkinson’s-like disease, which produces tremors, fatigue, headaches, problems with swallowing, and body stiffness. Welding fumes may also cause COPD and cancers of the lung, larynx, and urinary tract. Symptoms that should concern welders include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and dizziness.
If you work with harvested grains and crops, you could be at risk of developing farmer’s lung. Farmer’s lung is an allergic disease caused by mold spores or bacteria found in crops, especially hay. The exposures can cause sudden asthma-like attacks hours after inhalation, or they can cause a slow onset of symptoms. Prolonged exposure can cause permanent lung damage and even death. If you experience a persistent cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, or if you feel like you have a lingering cold or generally feel worn out, you should see your doctor.
Farm workers are also at risk of developing silo filler’s disease, which is caused by inhaling toxic gas from freshly harvested crops fermenting in a silo (a large structure used to store grain). Silo filler’s disease can cause serious lung disease or death. Symptoms can be immediate and life threatening within minutes of exposure, but usually occur within 30 hours. Coughing, breathlessness, dizziness, or a burning sensation in the chest should prompt immediate medical attention.
Exposure to dust from unprocessed cotton, flax, or hemp can cause a lung disease called byssinosis, or brown lung. Byssinosis symptoms can be similar to asthma symptoms and include chest tightness, wheezing, or coughing. Permanent lung damage is possible in workers with long-term exposure.
Diesel fumes can cause lung cancer and increase the risk of heart and respiratory disease. Diesel exhaust can irritate your eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, or make you nauseous or dizzy. Occupations involving diesel exposure include those where diesel equipment is run in an enclosed areas such as a mine, tunnel, or garage. Those who work on loading docks, bridges, railroads, and farms also can have diesel exposure. Proper ventilation and equipment maintenance can reduce the dangers of diesel-related health problems.
Working around noisy machinery and tools puts you at risk for one of the most common job-related health problems, hearing loss. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) reports that about 30 million workers in the United States are exposed to harmful noise levels each year. Long-term exposure to high noise levels can cause permanent hearing loss and ringing in the ears (called tinnitus).
Those who work in areas where nylon is cut into small strands, called “flock,” can contract a disease called flock worker’s lung. Flock is used to make a variety of household items, including carpets, upholstery, and blankets. Workers who inhale the small airborne fibers can develop inflammation and scarring in their lungs. Symptoms of flock worker’s lung include chest pain, cough, and shortness of breath.
Beryllium is a light metal used in missiles, spacecraft, airplanes, and satellites. Beryllium can be absorbed through the skin and be an irritant. Inhaled beryllium can cause lung cancer or berylliosis, a serious and sometimes fatal lung disease. Symptoms of berylliosis are shortness of breath with activity, a dry cough, fatigue, and weight loss. For more information about occupations where chronic beryllium disease can occur see Nolo’s article on beryllium exposure and liability.
Workers in microwave popcorn plants and others who work with flavorings may develop a serious lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, or popcorn lung. Popcorn lung often causes a dry cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath that increases in severity. Frequent eye, nose, and throat irritation can also signal the presence of popcorn lung. According to the CDC, the flavorings industry has estimated that over a thousand ingredients have the potential to be hazardous to workers’ health. If you work around products using a butter flavoring such as frostings, syrups, potato chips, cake mixes, and margarines, you could be at risk for popcorn lung.
If you are worried that you’ve been exposed to dangerous substances at work, you should see your doctor right away. If possible, bring labels from products that you suspect to be harmful. If your disease was in fact caused by work exposures, you will be able to file a workers’ comp claim against your employer. You may also be able to sue a third party that was responsible for the manufacture or distribution of the harmful substance or whose product failed to protect you from the harmful exposure (such as the manufacturer of failed safety gear).
To learn more about workers’ compensation claims or possible lawsuits based on occupational lung diseases, see Nolo’s articles on eligibility for workers’ compensation and when you can sue outside the workers' compensation system.