Is Your Job Damaging Your Lungs?


The Law Of… Breathing Easy At Work

Research carried out by several universities suggests that cases of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) continue to rise. It is thought that 1.2 million people in the UK are living with COPD and that number has risen by 27% in the last decade.

After research carried out in the US suggests that workplace fumes is one of the worst culprits for lung disease. Personal Injury and Industrial Disease specialist, Phillip Gower, looks into the effect of workplace fumes on workers in the UK.

What Is COPD?

Workplace fumes can cause a wide variety of pulmonary diseases, but COPD causes the most deaths in UK workers.

COPD occurs when the lungs have been damaged and airways are inflamed. It makes breathing difficult, but it develops over a series of years and it often goes unnoticed for a long time. Symptoms are usually more prevalent when a person is in their 40s and 50s.

COPD is the umbrella term for a number of lung diseases including:

  • Emphysema – damage to the lung's air sacs
  • Chronic bronchitis – inflammation of the airways

What Are The Symptoms Of COPD?

The main symptom of COPD is breathlessness. Because the symptom of breathlessness usually gets slowly worse over a long period of time, many people are unaware that they are suffering from COPD.

Other symptoms include:

  • a persistent cough with phlegm
  • recurrent chest infections
  • a wheezing noise particularly in cold weather
  • weight loss
  • tiredness
  • swollen ankles (oedema)
  • chest pain

What Are The Causes Of COPD?

COPD usually occurs when someone has had long-term exposure to substances that have caused the lungs and airways to become damaged and inflamed. Smoking is the main cause of COPD. The chemicals in smoke damage the lining of the lungs.

If you have been exposed to illegal levels of pollution over a long period of time, your chances of developing COPD are greatly increased. More research into the links of air pollution and COPD are hoped to bring about a more conclusive link.

Another cause of COPD is fumes and dust at work.

The main substances thought to cause COPD are:

  • grain and flour dust
  • silica dust
  • cadmium dust and fumes
  • welding fumes
  • isocyanates
  • coal dust

Exposure to dust and chemicals at work can damage lungs and therefore increase your risk of COPD.

There are some occupations where the development of COPD is more common.

Some of the occupations where the risk of COPD is increased include:

  • Brick making
  • Mining
  • Construction
  • Flour and grain workers in the food industry
  • Ceramic workers
  • Factory employees who work with plastic, rubber or textiles
  • Welders

How Can I Protect Myself From Developing COPD?

Whilst industries that have an increased risk of COPD have improved the way they deal with dust and hazardous substances over time, there is still a risk of developing lung disease in some workplaces.

If you work in an environment where your chances of COPD are higher than usual, the Health and Safety Executive provide top tips for both employees and employers on how to remain protected against respiratory diseases.

Some tips include:

  • Use water for wet techniques
  • Buy dust-reduced materials
  • Carry out risk assessments
  • Vacuum clean rather than using a brush or compressed air
  • Handle materials gently
  • Keep machines clean
  • Use respiratory protective equipment

How To Claim For COPD Caused By The Workplace

Because COPD is a long latency disease (meaning that it takes  a long time to develop) it can be difficult to trace where the COPD has come from.

It is important to visit a medical practitioner if you experience any of the symptoms mentioned. This is important to ensure you receive the right advice and begin treatment for your COPD, but it can also provide evidence for your condition that may be needed to claim compensation.

Compensation can help with any monitory loss from having to have time off work whilst suffering with COPD. It may also help with any specialist equipment you may need in order to make life more comfortable.

Whilst most personal injury claims have a 3 year time limit in which the claim must be made within this period of time after the injury took place, Industrial Disease cases are dealt with a little differently. It is common for industrial disease to develop over many years and therefore, if you have developed COPD since leaving a job, but you believe it was caused by the negligence of your old employer, you may be eligible to claim.

Phillip comments:

"We're seeing a lot more cases like this, where an employer hasn't taken pollution within a job into account and therefore hasn't protected the employee."

"Those who work in jobs where they are subject to any kind of hazardous substance, that includes car exhaust fumes, should be protected sufficiently."

"Long latency diseases are particularly dangerous as you may not know you are developing a life limiting disease for years after the exposure."

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