COPD and Workplace Pollution

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: July 2015.

Breathing in tiny particles called “irritants” can damage the lungs. This kind of lung damage can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The most common irritant that causes COPD is cigarette smoke. However, the air in some kinds of workplaces can also cause people who work there to have lung damage. Over time, this lung damage can cause COPD for some people.

What is workplace air pollution?1

Many different kinds of irritants can pollute the air in a workplace:

  • Chemicals
  • Dusts
  • Metals
  • Fumes and gases
  • Vapors

People who have jobs in workplaces with polluted air have a higher risk of getting COPD. It usually takes many years of exposure to powerful irritants for COPD to develop. However, that doesn’t change the fact that it is important to be aware of air quality in a workplace.

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How does workplace air pollution cause lung damage?1,2,3

Irritants in workplace air pollution can cause lung damage in two ways:

  • Inhaling a small amount of irritants over a long period of time, or
  • Inhaling a large amount of irritants over a short period of time.1

How common is workplace air pollution?2

Workplace air pollution is not unusual - around 30% to 40% of people have worked in a job where they were exposed to some type of air pollution. Not all types of workplace air pollution can cause COPD. However, between 15% and 20% of COPD cases are caused by workplace air pollution.

For about 30% of people with COPD who have never smoked, their disease was caused by workplace air pollution. People who smoke and work in a place with polluted air have an even higher risk of COPD. This is because their lungs are damaged by both tobacco smoke and air pollution.

Which kinds of workplaces are the most risky?2,4,5

People who work in certain types of jobs have a higher risk of developing COPD during their lives. This is because the air pollution in those kinds of workplaces contains irritants that can cause serious lung damage. This list includes irritants that can cause COPD, along with jobs where those irritants are often found:

  • Silica, coal and mineral dusts – coal mining, gold mining, construction work, concrete/brick manufacturing, granite quarries, tunnel working
  • Grain and flour dusts – food processing
  • Textile dust – textile manufacturing
  • Agricultural dust – crop farming, animal farming
  • Toxic chemicals – plastics, rubber, textile, paper, and leather manufacturing
  • Cadmium dust and fumes - welding

Can you lower the risk of workplace air pollution?6,7

The best way to lower the risk of COPD is to work in a job where there is no workplace air pollution. However, not everyone has the option to change jobs or workplace locations.

Many people must work in a place where they breathe irritants that increase their risk of COPD. If you do, it is very important to let your healthcare provider know that you work in a high-risk job. Having regular lung function tests can catch COPD at its early stages.

There are also steps you can take to reduce the amount of irritants you inhale:

  • Do not smoke
  • Limit your exposure to irritants whenever possible
  • Use special respiratory protective equipment or masks
  • Make sure the workplace is well ventilated
  • Whenever possible, use safe work practices to keep dust, fumes, and gases from entering the air
  • Keep the workplace and machinery as clean as possible
  • Clean with vacuums rather than brooms