Occupational Lung Diseases

Worker wearing safety mask and protective clothing painting in manufacturing plant

What are they?

  • Occupational lung diseases happen when workers breathe in certain chemicals, dusts, and fibers that irritate the lungs.
  • These diseases may take a long time to develop. They may have lasting effects on lungs and breathing long after a worker stops working with them.
  • Four lung diseases must be reported to Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Division of Public Health, because they are Wisconsin disease surveillance category II reportable diseases.
    • Asbestosis is a lung disease caused by breathing in asbestos fibers. Plumbers, pipe fitters, steamfitters, ship builders, and construction workers can be at risk.
    • Lung diseases from biodusts and bioaerosols are several kinds of lung diseases caused by breathing in particles from plants, animals, and microbes. Agricultural workers, waste handlers, wood processors, and food processors can be at risk.
    • Chemical pneumonitis is a disease in the lower part of the lungs caused by breathing in poisonous chemicals. Workers who make or use certain metals and chemicals can be at risk.
    • Silicosis is a lung disease caused by breathing in crystalline silica dust. Workers at risk are in many industries, including mining, manufacturing, foundries, sandblasting, and construction.

Click on each disease tab below for more worker information and health professional reporting information.

Asbestosis

What is it?

Asbestosis is a type of pneumoconiosis caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. Onset is generally insidious with cough and shortness of breath being the most common symptom. Evidence of disease occurs at least 10 years after exposure and more commonly 20–30 years after peak asbestos exposure.

Progression of the disease is variable and there are no specific treatments.

Who's at risk?

Occupational exposure is the most common source of exposure. High-risk occupations include plumbers, pipe fitters, steamfitters, ship builders, and construction workers using asbestos insulation and other asbestos-based materials.

Exposure can also occur through environmental exposure, such as a residence near an asbestos or vermiculite mine or prolonged exposure to a contaminated area.

Additional Resources

For Workers:

For Health Professionals:

Biodusts and Aerosols

What are they?

Biodusts and bioaerosols can cause a variety of occupational lung conditions in workers.

Bioaerosols are complex mixtures of particles consisting of living and dead microorganisms, cellular material from plants and animals, dispersal units (fungal spores and plant pollen), or allergenic proteins. Biodusts include similar organic components that can be projected into the air, but which settle slowly under the influence of gravity.

Both biodusts and bioaerosols can produce a wide range of occupationally related lung conditions that are generally classified as follows: asthma and asthma-like syndromes, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, organic toxic dust syndrome, and chronic bronchitis.

For more information, see the related EpiNet document - P-02188.

Who's at risk?

Agricultural workers, waste handlers, wood processors, and food processors can be at risk.

Additional Resources

For Workers:

  • Workers at risk for biodusts and bioaerosols should use personal protective equipment (PPE) and respiratory protection that meet National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines. In general, an N-95 respirator is recommended for bioaerosol exposures, but PPE and medical clearance recommendations for the specific biodust or bioaerosol should be confirmed.
  • NIOSH's website for respiratory exposures has links to learn more about specific biodusts or bioaerosols.
  • NIOSH and OSHA guidance are available for post-disaster mold exposure, agricultural dusts, and sanitation work and sewage exposure.

For Health Professionals:

Chemical Pneumonitis

What is it?

Chemical pneumonitis is inflammation of the lower respiratory tract caused by aspiration of a chemical agent that is inherently toxic to the lungs.

Signs and symptoms include acute dyspnea, tachypnea, hypoxemia, cyanosis, bronchospasm, and fever. Treatment is primarily supportive, and severe cases can result in pulmonary edema, respiratory failure, and death.

Who's at risk?

Chemical exposures of sufficient intensity to result in chemical pneumonitis are typically occupational in nature. A wide variety of agents are known to produce chemical pneumonitis:

  • Metal fumes encountered in a variety of manufacturing processes, including beryllium compounds, mercury, cadmium oxide, nickel, copper, and manganese;
  • Caustic gases, such as hydrogen fluoride, chlorine, and nitrogen dioxide;
  • Aspiration of liquid hydrocarbons, such as gasoline and petroleum-derived solvents.

Workers exposed to any of these agents are potentially at risk.

Additional Resources

For Workers:

  • Workers who work with chemicals that can cause chemical pneumonitis should use personal protective equipment (PPE) and respiratory protection that meet National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines.
  • NIOSH's website for respiratory exposures has links to learn more about chemicals that can cause chemical pneumonitis.
  • Fact sheets about exposure laws and PPE for many chemicals (usually with Spanish versions) are available from the New Jersey Right to Know Program.
  • CDC-INFO (800-CDC-INFO/800-232-4636 or by email) is also available for consultation.

For Health Professionals:

Silicosis

What is it?

Silicosis is an occupational lung disease caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust.

Silicosis is also associated with autoimmune diseases (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma), chronic kidney disease, and an increased risk of tuberculosis and lung cancer.

It is a progressive and incurable disease.

Who's at risk?

Persons working in mining, paint manufacturing, glass and concrete product manufacturing, foundries, brick making, abrasive blasting and sandblasting, construction, and manufacturing of plumbing fixtures can be at increased risk of silicosis.

Additionally, an increasing proportion of silicosis deaths from nonoccupational talc dust exposure (including likely drug use) has been reported in persons aged 15–44 years.

Additional Resources

For Workers:

For Health Professionals:

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Last Revised: September 17, 2019