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November 08, 2004
Lung Safety—Take a Breath of Fresh Air

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month—an appropriate time for reminding employees about protecting their lungs on and off the job.

Occupational lung disease can be a killer. Many serious—even fatal—lung diseases can be traced to workplace hazards, including:

  • Lung cancer—from inhaling carcinogenic chemicals, asbestos, and certain types of carbons
  • Asbestosis—a progressive lung disease that results from inhaling asbestos fibers
  • Silicosis—from inhaling silica dust found in stone, clay, and glass manufacturing as well as blasting operations
  • Occupational asthma—from exposure to any number of vapors, gases, fumes, or dusts that can trigger an asthma attack
  • Certain industry-specific diseases such as black lung (coal) and brown lung (textiles)

In addition, studies clearly show that smokers are more susceptible than non-smokers to developing occupational lung diseases.

Employees should recognize the key risk factors. Hot, closed-in work areas and poor ventilation magnify the potential for developing lung problems if disease-causing substances are present. Remind employees that they should know both the hazards of the substances they work with and the conditions that might increase the risk. They should make it a habit to always:

Why It Matters...
  • Lung disease is the number one work-related illness in the U.S. in terms of severity, frequency, and preventability.
  • Occupational lung cancer is estimated to kill between 15,000 and 20,000 people each year.
  • Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women in the U.S.
  • Read the labels and MSDSs of hazardous substances to understand the dangers of inhaling the substance—and do it before using the substance.
  • Avoid or minimize breathing in any sort of dust, vapors, fumes, or gases.
  • Make sure that engineering controls, such as ventilation and exhaust systems, are in place and functioning properly.

Of course, anyone who works in an area with high levels of hazardous substances in the air must wear an appropriate respirator and know how to use it properly.

Early detection is the key to treating lung diseases. The success of medical treatment for lung diseases usually depends on how early the disease is detected. (Even lung cancer can be treated successfully if found at an early stage.) Encourage employees to get a medical examination if they develop symptoms, such as a persistent cough, and if they have reason to believe the problem may be work-related. But most important, emphasize that occupational lung diseases can be prevented in the first place with the right combination of hazard awareness, engineering controls, PPE, and common sense.

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