COPD is an umbrella term for a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties. This is due to the narrowing of airways making it difficult to empty air out of the lungs. Shortness of breath, cough and the production of small amounts of phlegm every day are the most common symptoms.
What causes COPD?
COPD usually develops because of long-term damage to the lungs from breathing in harmful substances. It develops slowly over many years with symptoms usually only starting to become a problem in mid-life around the late forties. While smoking is the main cause around 15% of COPD is thought to be caused or made worse by work, usually due to dust from coal, cotton or grain or a substance known as silica which is found in metal mines and pottery factories.
Industries linked with COPD include:
Agriculture Flour and grain workers
Brick making Foundry Workers
Cadmium related industries Petroleum workers
Mining Pottery/ceramic workers
Dock workers Textiles
COPD can be very disabling. Symptoms tend to worsen over time and can cause the worker to become very breathless when doing normal daily activities such as walking upstairs, shopping or having a shower. The lung damage that causes COPD cannot be reversed even when the worker is no longer exposed to the cause.
It is estimated that 4000 COPD deaths a year in Great Britain may be related to workplace exposures and that 40% of people diagnosed with COPD are below retirement age. Of that 40%, about 25% are unable to work at all due to their condition. Therefore, prevention is key to protect workers from this life-changing illness.
What does an employer need to do?
- Perform a COSSH risk assessment to identify if your employees are at risk
- Consider health surveillance if a substance definitely causes COPD in your workplace
- Educate your employees about their risk so that they can be active participants in reducing it.