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While smoking is still the leading cause of COPD in western nations, occupational exposures also account for a very significant portion of cases. What are high-risk occupations, and what steps can you take to reduce your risk of COPD?

COPD — chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — is a chronic and progressive inflammatory lung disease that leads to obstructed airflow. Smoking is by far the most frequent cause in industrialized western nations, but environmental and workplace exposure can also contribute or even solely cause COPD. In fact, research shows that workplace exposures play a role in causing COPD in about 15 to 21 percent of cases.

You are at a higher risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease if you work with certain substances, and the occupations associated with increased odds include:

  • Mining
  • Construction
  • Working in the petroleum industry
  • Working in agriculture
  • Making bricks, working in a quarry, or working as a stonemason
  • Working with cadmium
  • Dock workers
  • Those who work with flour and grain
  • People who work in foundries
  • Textile workers
  • People who work with ceramics
  • Those who work with plastics or rubber
  • Welders
  • People in the bartending industry, who are exposed to tabacco smoke

The risk of COPD goes up even more in people who work in industries that cause them to be more vulnerable to COPD, while smoking as well. 

A very long list of dusts, fumes, pesticides, and gases can cause COPD if you're exposed to them for prolonged amounts of time, but you should be especially aware of the possibility of COPD if you work with or around cadmium dust or fumes, flour (grain) dust, mineral dusts, silica, tobacco smoke, or welding fumes. It is, of course, important to be aware that these same chemicals also contribute to your risk of a wide variety of other conditions, ranging from pneumonia to lung cancer. 

Does being in a high-risk profession mean you should change jobs to prevent COPD? The answer is "maybe". With the right health and safety and lifestyle habits, you can certainly limit your risk to a minimum. Here are some tips. 

1. Do not smoke — and don't be around smoking

Smoking isn't just the main cause of COPD in many places, smoking or being around others who do can also lead to exacerbations in people already diagnosed with the condition. The number one thing anyone with COPD (and anyone who wants to do their best to not get COPD) can do for their health is to avoid exposure to any kind of tobacco smoking. This is especially true for people who are exposed to substances associated with a higher COPD risk at work, because smoking or being around tobacco smoke leads to a "double exposure" — and it literally doubles your risk of ending up with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. 

(This, of course, presents a real dilemma for people who are professionally around smokers, because they're waiters or bartenders, for instance.)

2. Work for an employer who takes health and safety seriously

Even workplaces that involve dusts, fumes, and gases by definition can take important steps to protect workers from exposures. Most of these steps should be implemented on a company-wide basis by employers rather than workers, so working for an employer who takes your health and safety seriously is one of the best things you can do to minimize environmental exposures that place you at risk of COPD.

Simple steps that keep you safer at work can include:

  • Using water to reduce dust circulation when working with machinery to cut, blast, grind, or sand. 
  • Using industrial vacuums to suck dust away as soon as it is released into the air. 
  • Storing dust-producing items in sealed bags where possible. 
  • Limiting dust-producing activities to a certain area of the workplace so that workers are not exposed when not directly working with such materials. 
  • Regularly carrying out risk assessments, attending health and safety courses, and implementing the latest proven steps to minimize environmental exposures. 

3. Steps workers in high-risk professions can do to minimize environmental exposure

Although your employer plays a crucial role in reducing your risk of COPD if you work with potentially hazardous dusts, fumes, and gases, you yourself have a very important part to play as well. You can:

  • Use vacuum cleaners — don't rely on brushing, sweeping, or compressed air to clean, as these methods spread dusts around rather than taking them out of the environment, where you can breathe them in. 
  • Avoid spreading substances that can be harmful for your lungs around by being careful — using machinery on the lowest effective setting, making sure items can't fall and create dust, and using sealed bags are all possible ways to do this. 
  • Perform regular maintenance when it comes to machinery. 
  • Don't forget about Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV).
  • Use respiratory protective equipment (RPE) where it is necessary. 
  • Wear synthetic clothing that can be easily cleaned, and clean it regularly. Vacuum your work clothes and always change out of them immediately after you're finished working with materials that are hazardous for your lungs. 
And because it's so important, we'll say this separately — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration strongly advises you to use a P-, N-, or R-95 respirator mask if you work in environments with a lot of dust for good reason. Use a respirator mask where necessary, always and without exception. 

4. Get spirometry tests annually

If you are in an occupation that has been associated with an increased risk of COPD, it is a good idea to check in for a spirometry test that looks at your lung function every year. This will show you your current lung function, but also how it changes over time. While you're at the doctor's you can have a frank discussion about how your work could be impacting your lung health, and ask any questions you have. 

  • Meldrum M, Rawbone R, Curran AD, et al. The role of occupation in the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Occup Environ Med 2005,62:212–14.
  • Harber P, Tashkin DP, Simmons M, Crawford L, Hnizdo E, Connet J. Effect of occupational exposures on decline of lung function in early chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2007,176:994–1000.
  • Kraïm-Leleu, M., Lesage, F.-X., Drame, M., Lebargy, F., & Deschamps, F. (2016). Occupational Risk Factors for COPD: A Case-Control Study. PLOS ONE, 11(8), e0158719.
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