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Occupational COPD: Let’s Begin The Discussion

I’m at work. I’m watching TV with a COPD patient. She is watching HGTV. The show was a home improvement show. I can’t remember the name of the show. But, on the show, this lady bought a new home. She’s remodeling it. She obviously has an unlimited budget. I wish I had an unlimited budget. But, as I’m watching this show I can’t help but think: “Occupational COPD.”

So, the lady bought a house in a nice neighborhood. It has a pool. To me, the house looks awesome. I’d be happy with it just as is. It’s a huge spacious house. It would be perfect for me and my kids. But, this lady decides to hire a crew to tear apart every room. I watch as the construction crew rips up the house.

They smash bricks with axes and tear up the walls. And, as they’re doing this, I can see the dust spewing out. And the lady is right there with them. Sometimes she even grabs an ax and helps smash things. Actually, I think it would be kind of fun. But, I think I’d wear a mask to protect my lungs.

So, you know they’re inhaling this dust. And, not one person on this show was wearing a mask. They have goggles to protect their eyes. You can see eyes, so they get your attention. They get protected from dust. But, the lungs aren’t, seen and so they get no attention whatsoever. To me that’s kind of sad. It shows lack of COPD awareness.

And, I think, this is fine for the lady who is helping. I mean, she’s going to get her house done and then she’s not going to be exposed to this dust every day. But, the members of the crew do this for a living. So, I bet they get exposed to lots of dust. Hopefully they don’t have COPD genes.

That’s what causes Occupational COPD

You inhale noxious chemicals at work day after day after day, year after year after year. You may sneeze and cough. That’s your body saying, “What are you putting into me?” But, you just deal with it and continue inhaling the dust.

Some of it may be just modesty. You may be thinking: “Gosh, I should wear a mask.” But then you look around and nobody else is doing it. So, you just inhale the dust like everyone else. I can picture myself being that way. I’d want to wear a mask. But, I’d worry about what others would think.

But this is not so good if you have COPD genes. It’s not so good if you have a genetic susceptibility to developing COPD. It’s not good if you have a family history of asthma or COPD. As, inhaling such harmful substances can indeed harm your lungs. And when you do this every day, it may cause COPD over time. When this happens it may be diagnosed as Occupational COPD

What is occupational COPD?

A quarter or a third of people with COPD never smoked.1 So, obviously, this means something other than first-hand smoking caused it. Inhaling second-hand smoke every day at your work can cause it. And this would be classified as occupational COPD.

So, one way of getting COPD without smoking is through occupational exposure. Some estimate about 15% of COPD cases are caused by your occupation. So, occupational COPD is COPD caused by your work. It’s defined as COPD caused by exposure to dusts, chemicals, and gases/fumes at your work.2

These substances may have a smell. But they may not. They may be seen. But you may see them at all.

Mining industrial workers may be at high risk. These include coal minors, hard-rock minors, and tunnel workers. Non-mining industrial workers may also be at risk. This includes factories involved in the manufacturing of rubber, leather, and textile. It may also include utility work, building services, and construction work (as noted above).2

All of these jobs have the potential to exposing you to noxious substances in the air. Therefore, all of them may increase your risk for developing COPD. Since COPD is a gradually progressive disease, it’s usually not diagnosed until after the age of 40.

So, let’s say you’re diagnosed with COPD. But, you say, “I never smoked.” Your doctor may inquire as to where you worked. So, this is how to diagnose Occupational COPD.

What to make of this?

Construction crews began a major project at my work recently. The zones of construction are well sealed off. This prevents dusts from escaping the zones. That’s good for people like me. It’s also good for my patients, particularly those with COPD. We get to continue breathing clean air.

I was equally impressed to see workers exiting these areas wearing masks. So, this is definitely a testament to how far we have become. Similar efforts are now made at other work environments. The goal is to prevent respiratory diseases like occupational COPD.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Lamprecht, et al., "COPD In Never Smokers," Chest, 2011,, accessed 12/30/18
  2. Boschetto, et al., “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) And Occupational Exposures,” Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology, 2006, June 7,, accessed 12/21/18