Save your Breath: Protect your Lungs

The ability to breathe deeply, easily, and efficiently has a major impact on an individual’s quality of life. Malfunctions in the pulmonary system can become life-threatening in a matter of minutes. Tobacco smoke is a well-known lung hazard, but others can arise from unexpected sources. Taking time to evaluate your operations, and if necessary, taking appropriate steps towards reducing or mitigating the risks of exposure to harmful effects of common respiratory hazards is an important part of proactive risk management.

What constitutes a respiratory hazard?

In essence, a respiratory hazard is any particulate, gaseous, or vaporous airborne contaminant that can be inhaled into the lungs. The presence of such contaminants in high quantities can also create what is known as an oxygen deficient atmosphere, in which not enough oxygen is present in each inhalation to sustain basic bodily functions (carbon monoxide poisoning, covered in a separate article, is a primary example of this.)

What are occupational lung diseases?

Johns Hopkins Medicine classifies occupational lung disease as “repeated and long-term exposure to certain irritants on the job [which] can lead to an array of lung diseases that may have lasting effects, even after exposure ceases.” These irritants can range from everyday cleaners to job-specific materials that create hazards.

John Hopkins cites the following information regarding occupational lung diseases from the American Lung Association:

Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) also classifies respiratory hazards as one of the most frequently cited OSHA violations in the workplace.

Which occupations are at risk?

Respiratory hazards can exist anywhere there is air, so it is important to analyze all work environments and processes to determine whether particulate, gaseous, or vaporous airborne contaminants have a potential to be present. Certain industries are more likely to expose workers to respiratory hazards, due to the nature of the work involved, including:


Many agricultural workers operate in extremely dusty conditions, either from fields or crops that produce dust, such as grains. In addition, agricultural workers can be exposed to numerous airborne pesticides, as well as harmful molds from crops.

Automotive, Mechanic, and Transportation

Many harsh chemicals are present in automotive work that can lead to respiratory hazards, especially in professions such as auto body painting. Fumes from fuels can also pose hazards.


Prolonged exposure to flour dust can cause irritants and allergies in professional bakeries.

Bartending and Waitressing

While many establishments have prohibited indoor smoking, servers that continue to be exposed to secondhand smoke are at greater risk for developing severe lung disease.

Construction, Manufacturing, Mining, and Welding

Mining operations are notorious for subjecting workers to harmful materials such as coal dust, but construction workers are also regularly exposed to all kinds of airborne contaminants, such as asbestos, wood dust, mold, lead, and silica. Likewise, factories frequently make use of materials in bulk, which can create large quantities of dust, gas, or airborne chemicals. Welding materials also frequently contain chemicals that can put off toxic fumes when subjected to high heat.


It may seem obvious that smoke is a concern for firefighters, but what is less well known is that additional hazards can occur when certain materials burn, such as chemicals found in plastics, furniture, and certain paints, which can make smoke from a structural fire exponentially more toxic.

Cosmetology and Hair Styling

There are many chemicals involved in certain cosmetic procedures, such as those performed in nail salons, and many aerosol hair styling products that can cause lung damage and injury over time.

Housekeeping and Janitorial Services

Aerosol cleaning chemicals and dust are both common culprits that put professional cleaners at risk.

How can respiratory hazards be prevented?

The best way to prevent a respiratory hazard is to remove the potential for them to occur. Examples could include finding alternatives to aerosol-based cleaners, switching up work procedures to decrease the amount of airborne contaminates, and analyzing work environments for proper ventilation.

If it is impossible to eliminate a hazard once it is discovered, then it is important to ensure your employees have adequate protection against it. Be sure to provide both education and appropriate personal protective equipment. It is also a good idea to periodically hire an occupational health expert to review your facilities, in order to spot hazards that may have previously been overlooked, as well as to provide recommendations for how to eliminate or reduce risks.

Everyone deserves to be able to breathe easily, and safely, on the job. Check out the following links for additional information, and contact your risk manager with additional questions.

Information in this article came from the following resources:

OHS Online: Seven Respiratory Hazards Every Safety Manager Should Understand

WebMD: Risky Jobs for your Lungs

CBS News: 10 Worst Jobs for your Lungs

WebMD: Household Hazards for People with COPD

Leavitt Safety: Worst Jobs for Your Lungs