Not all dust is as harmless as the dust that you commonly clean from the surfaces inside of your home. Some dust, especially in industrial or construction environments, has the potential to be very harmful. In this post, we'll cover some of those harmful dusts and the disease - pneumoconiosis - that is associated with their inhalation. This article also covers what PPE should be worn when working in high-risk environments and other safety measures to follow.
Pneumoconiosis Explained: What You Need to Know
Pneumoconiosis is defined as any disease that involves the inhalation of potentially harmful dusts. These include diseases such as asbestosis, silicosis, and coal worker pneumoconiosis, the latter which is better known simply as "black lung." While the cause of the disease and the type of dust inhaled may differ, pneumoconiosis symptoms are often similar. For example, when a harmful dust is inhaled and deposits in the lungs, it's likely to lead to inflammation and damage to the lung tissue, or lead to fibrosis. Key symptoms include:
- A nagging cough
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- Tightness in the chest
These symptoms may initially seem similar to what you might experience if you had a cold or some sort of respiratory infection. However, the big difference between pneumoconiosis and other types of medical issues is that it persists. If such issues are left untreated, it could lead to problems for the rest of the body's organs. That's why pneumoconiosis prevention is so important, especially when you consider that the majority of cases are work-related.
Throughout the rest of this post, we'll discuss the industries and professions at high risk of developing this disease and what should be done to minimize risk.
Industries, Jobs at High Risk of this Disease
Most cases of pneumoconiosis are work-related - and no worker group is more at risk for developing the disease than coal miners. In fact, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10 percent of coal miners who have worked in the mines for at least 25 years were diagnosed with black lung. Other studies suggest that about 16 percent of all coal miners may develop fibrosis from coal dust. Furthermore, black lung has accounted for about 76,000 coal miner deaths since 1968. This helped inspire the 1969 Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which established new guidelines on worker health and safety in coal mines.
However, coal miners are just one group at risk of pneumoconiosis. Other professions that may come into contact with asbestos, silica, and other types of harmful dusts include:
- Restoration and remediation workers
- Construction professionals
- Plumbers, roofers, and general contractors
- Textile workers
- Auto workers
What Causes Pneumoconiosis?
Pneumoconiosis is defined as any disease that involves the inhalation of harmful dusts. It tends to be a disease linked to prolonged exposure to said dusts, which is why the disease is often linked to work-related exposure. Some common pneumoconiosis causes include:
Asbestos is commonly found in certain building materials, auto parts, and various other products. While it's not used any longer in building materials found in homes, older houses may still have asbestos-containing products, notably in floor and ceiling tiles. When these products are left alone and intact, asbestos is harmless. However, if said products become damaged and the asbestos dust enters the air and is breathed in, it is harmful. Therefore, construction workers, restoration workers, general contractors, and even homeowners may be at risk. What's more, asbestos symptoms may not become evident for 20 or more years after exposure.
Silica is found in sand, stone, granite, rock, and other ores, leaving sandblasters, foundry workers and quarry workers at risk of exposure. When inhaled in large amounts or high concentrations, workers can develop Silicosis—a long-term lung disease. Silicosis typically develops over years of inhaling crystalline silica dust.
Formally known as coal worker's pneumoconiosis, it's common in the coal worker profession among those who have worked in the mines without proper PPE. It has inspired legislation to help protect coal miners, yet due to the slow developing nature of the disease, it's still something that impacts many coal miners today.
Symptoms of Pneumoconiosis
The main symptoms of pneumoconiosis include shortness of breath, wheezing, and a nagging cough that may or may not produce mucus. At the onset, these symptoms may appear as nothing more than the common cold or a mild respiratory infection. However, if you work in an environment where you regularly come into contact with harmful dusts, then these symptoms could present as more than just a cold.
The best way to diagnose pneumoconiosis is with a chest X-ray or a pulmonary function test. In some cases, a CT scan of the chest may be necessary. If conditions appear more serious, a lung biopsy may be ordered.
The good news is that most cases of pneumoconiosis can be managed over the long-term via the likes of oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation, lifestyle changes, and regular medical checkups. Receiving an annual flu shot and getting the COVID-19 vaccine can also help protect the lungs and offer protection from pneumonia. Talk with your doctor about these immunizations and other measures that you should take if you're managing pneumoconiosis.
Pneumoconiosis can eventually lead to a number of more significant health complications if it's not treated, such as respiratory failure, heart failure, and mesothelioma. That's why it's important to wear protective clothing and devices, such as a respirator, to help decrease exposure to these harmful dusts.
PPE to Reduce Pneumoconiosis Risk
So how can you reduce the risk of pneumoconiosis? The biggest thing you can do is ensure that you're wearing the right personal protective equipment, or PPE. And perhaps the most important piece of PPE is a face mask or fit-tested respirator.
What type of mask should you be wearing when working around potentially harmful dusts? If you want to ensure you're as protected as possible, any type of respirator is going to be your best option. Respirators work to purify the air that you're breathing and include HEPA filtered cartridges that are able to ward off harmful dusts. However, it's important that any worker wearing a respirator has it properly fitted before donning it on the job. These fit tests help ensure that they offer proper protection and form a snug fit around the nose and mouth. If a respirator does not fit properly, it's not going to offer a proper level of protection from potentially harmful dusts.
When working in environments where other dusts may be present, an N-95 may be suitable. This should be the minimum level of facial protection when working with these types of dusts.
Other PPE, such as gloves and full-body suits should be worn if you're working in an environment with lead dust. Lead dusts may be present in older buildings where lead-based paint was used.
Other Preventative Safety Measures
Aside from wearing the right PPE in high-risk environments to help protect your lungs, there are a variety of other preventative measures you can administer to decrease the risk of exposure. These include:
- Ventilation and dust collection: Venting or collecting dusts can significantly decrease the amount of particulate in a confined environment, thereby meaning that there's less dust that workers can be exposed to.
- Know the environment: This preventative measure is more of a tip for home improvement workers, construction professionals, and restoration contractors who may work in homes or environments where asbestos-containing materials or lead-based paint has been disturbed. That's why a thorough inspection of any property should be conducted before work begins, so proper precautions can be taken.
- Wet the area: Dust has the most potential to do harm when it's airborne. Hence, misting or wetting down areas with heavy contamination will cause the particulate to fall to the floor, thereby making cleanup safer and easier.
- Don't smoke: Smoking only worsens the effects of pneumoconiosis. It's why upon diagnosis, doctors always suggest lifestyle changes that include eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise, and quitting smoking (if applicable).
- Receive regular medical exams: While there's no cure for pneumoconiosis, it can be managed over the long-term. But early medical intervention is key, which is why those who operate in higher-risk environments should be regularly seeing their doctor and looking for symptoms that are synonymous with pneumoconiosis.
- Practice good hygiene: Because dust may get on a worker's hands, good hygiene tips - like thoroughly washing your hands and face, especially before eating or drinking - should also be practiced in the workplace.
As is the case with most preventative measures, the more you can enforce on the job site, the safer it will be overall. You should always go above and beyond to protect your lungs, especially if you're working in an environment that's at high risk for pneumoconiosis. Make sure workers are outfitted with the right PPE and have safety measures in place to reduce their risk of exposure to harmful dusts.