It should go without saying that some jobs are more dangerous than others - and risk on the job site can stem from a variety of factors, which may include the materials being worked with or the equipment that's being used. When it comes to hazards on site, there's also the risk of occupational diseases, which can have significant long-term health consequences or even result in premature death. In this post, we'll dig deeper into occupational diseases, how they're defined, the causes of occupational diseases, and most importantly, how to prevent them.

Defining Occupational Diseases

What exactly is an occupational disease? Simply put, occupational diseases are defined as conditions or disorders that result from an individual's work. They may be caused by the environment that the work is taking place in or certain activities that are done as part of a job. Occupational diseases often arise when there becomes too casual of a relationship between potential hazards on a job site and the workers that are carrying tasks out. On that note, you might not be surprised to learn that in most cases, such diseases are entirely preventable using proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and safety procedures.

How big of a problem are occupational diseases? According to data from the International Labour Organization, some 2.34 million workers die each year because of work-related accidents and diseases. In fact, it’s reported that 6,300 work-related deaths occur each day globally - and more than 5,000 are due to work-related diseases. What's more, it's believed that many diseases also go unreported, so the previous statistics are likely much higher.

On any job site, the goal should be to provide a safe working environment and send each worker home every day in the same condition that they arrived on the site. Unfortunately, that's not always the case - but it can be by instituting the proper measures to ensure prevention of occupational diseases.

Criteria Used to Identify Occupational Diseases

So just how do you define an occupational disease? The industry largely defers to criteria established by Dr. Bradford Hill in 1965 and documented in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine. The criteria list consists of nine points, which are:

  1. The strength of association between cause and effect.
  2. Consistency, or the disease arising in multiple workers with similar jobs.
  3. The specifics of association between cause and effect.
  4. The temporal relationship, as in how exposure to certain conditions must occur before disease onset.
  5. The relationship between association and response.
  6. Whether or not the cause and effect make sense.
  7. Coherence
  8. Evidence

The Most Common Occupational Diseases

Now that we've gone over some of the basics related to occupational diseases and the criteria that are used to define them, let's look at some of the most prevalent diseases that can stem from certain job sites.

Skin Diseases

Whether it's from exposure to harsh chemicals or materials, or prolonged exposure to the sun for those working outside, skin diseases and disorders are one of the most common occupational diseases. Some examples of skin diseases include skin cancer, skin infections, rashes, ulcers, and inflammation. Perhaps the most common skin disorders are eczema and dermatitis, the latter of which accounts for up to 20 percent of all reported occupational diseases in the United States. Furthermore, it's estimated that up to 75 percent of all workers with dermatitis eventually experience chronic skin diseases.

Respiratory Diseases

Respiratory illnesses are another leading occupational hazard, especially among workers who may be subject to inhaling dangerous chemicals or particulates every day. Respiratory illnesses can also be among the most severe types of occupational hazards. Some workers may develop occupational asthma, while others may experience more detrimental health effects, such as pneumonitis, tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or even mesothelioma.

Hearing Loss

Any prolonged exposure to loud noise can lead to permanent hearing loss over time, making this a common occupational disease. According to the CDC, prolonged exposure to noise levels above 70 decibels can permanently damage your hearing over time. Furthermore, exposure to noises over 120 decibels can lead to immediate damage to your hearing. Hearing loss is common on construction job sites where workers are regularly exposed to loud noises from tools, machinery, and equipment over the course of their careers.

Musculoskeletal Disorders

Overexertion is one of the leading workers' compensation claims - and it's common in just about any job where manual labor is involved. From hernias to back problems to leg injuries, ankle sprains, joint problems and shoulder issues, musculoskeletal disorders and overexertion are common on construction sites and in warehouse environments where workers are manually moving products or materials from one place to another.

Mental Health Disorders

Finally, mental health disorders are another common class of occupational diseases. Whether it's a result of bullying, hazing, sexual harassment or a form of violence on the job site, workers may turn to unhealthy behaviors that impact them and those around them. Mental health issues may also stem from problems outside of work, from family issues to money problems to economic crises. Often, people turn to alcohol, drugs, or other unhealthy behaviors as a coping mechanism, which can also lead to stress, anxiety, depression and more. There's a common misconception that occupational diseases are only physical in nature, and that's simply not the case.

Prevention of Occupational Diseases

When it comes to occupational diseases, the good news is that they can be largely prevented with a combination of PPE and other best practices. In this section, we'll take a closer look at some of the ways to prevent occupational diseases:

Personal Protective Equipment Use

One of the most significant ways to ensure the prevention of occupational diseases is to empower workers to do their jobs while wearing the right PPE. Some PPE that can help prevent occupational diseases include:

  • Respirators: These devices help protect a worker's lungs and upper respiratory system from chemicals, fumes, or airborne contaminants that could cause harm. There are many types of respirators - make sure that your workers are wearing the appropriate models in the environments where they're working. Half and full-face respirators will require fit tests before they can be worn in the field.
  • Gloves and/or sleeves: Proper work gloves can help prevent skin problems and dermatitis for workers who regularly work with their hands.
  • Body suits: Body suits can help prevent skin disorders from exposure to chemicals on the hands, arms, legs, and even the face when worn with a respirator.
  • Ear protection: Ear plugs or earmuffs should be worn appropriately on certain job sites to prevent hearing loss.

Air Quality Monitoring

Many workers are exposed to harmful chemicals or particulates when they might not even realize it. That's why air quality monitoring is so important on a jobsite, as it will help determine the level of respiratory protection that is necessary. It also underscores the importance of a proper site assessment before work begins. For example, a restoration or construction worker may begin demolition work in an area with asbestos-containing materials without even knowing it if proper site assessments and air quality monitoring do not occur first.

Safety and Hazard Assessments

A safety site manager should always have safety data sheets on hand and hazard assessments appropriately documented. These should be communicated in morning huddles each day so that workers have another "heads up" to potential hazards and the information needed to stay safe. The role of the safety professional on any job site is extremely critical to protecting workers short and long-term health.

Medical Checkups

In addition to on-the-job measures, workers should also ensure that they're regularly seeing a doctor or medical professional for physical and mental health monitoring. A doctor or medical expert can help diagnose any issues so they can be appropriately treated before they become too debilitating or lethal. They can also help reinforce that what you're doing and the precautions that you're abiding by are working.

Other Precautions

There are a variety of other precautions to take on the jobsite to prevent occupational diseases. For instance, you might consider adding more forklifts or material unit lift enhancers to sites to help prevent overexertion from lifting or other manual labor. You could consider providing confidential counseling services to workers who may have experienced a traumatic incident on the job site to aid in their mental health. And it's important to reinforce the importance of taking regular breaks to ensure that workers have the necessary time to rest and prevent overexertion.

Obviously, the number one reason to take the appropriate measures to prevent occupational diseases is for the health of your workers. But it can also pay - literally - to make prevention more of a point of emphasis on your work site. In the U.S. alone, it's estimated that the cost of work-related accidents and diseases accounts for about $2.8 trillion in both direct and indirect costs. Take the time today to revisit your prevention plans and ensure a safe work environment.