Occupational Lung Diseases

January 16, 2018
Occupational lung diseases are lung problems that are made worse in certain work environments. They are caused by long-term exposure to certain irritants that are breathed into the lungs. These lung diseases may have lasting effects, even after the exposure ends.

Particles in the air from many sources, such as factories, smokestacks, exhaust, fires, mining, construction, and agriculture , cause these lung problems. The smaller the particles are, the more damage they can do to the lungs. Smaller particles are easily inhaled deep into the lungs. There, they are absorbed into the body instead of being coughed out:
  • Asbestosis. This condition is caused when a person breathes in tiny asbestos fibers. Over time, this leads to scarring of the lungs and stiff lung tissue. It’s often linked with construction work.
  • Coal worker's pneumoconiosis or black lung disease. This disease is caused by inhaling coal dust. It causes inflammation and scarring of the lungs. This can cause permanent lung damage and shortness of breath.
  • Silicosis. This condition is caused by breathing in airborne crystalline silica. This is a dust found in the air of mines; foundries; blasting operations; and stone, clay, and glass manufacturing facilities. It causes scarring of the lungs. It can also increase the risk for other lung diseases.
  • Byssinosis. This is caused by breathing in dust from hemp, flax, and cotton processing. It is also known as Brown Lung Disease. The condition is chronic and causes chest tightness and shortness of breath. It affects textile workers, especially those who work with unprocessed cotton.
  • Hypersensitivity pneumonitis. This is an allergic lung disease caused by a lung inflammation that happens from breathing in many different substances including fungus spores, bacteria, animal or plant protein, or specific chemicals. They can come from moldy hay, bird droppings, and other organic dusts. The disease causes inflamed air sacs in the lungs, and leads to fibrous scar tissue in the lungs and trouble breathing. There are variations of this disease depending on the job. They include cork worker's lung, farmer's lung, and mushroom worker's lung.
  • Occupational asthma. Occupational asthma is caused by breathing in dusts, gases, fumes, and vapors. It causes asthma symptoms such as a chronic cough and wheezing. This condition can be reversed if found early. If you work in manufacturing and processing operations, farming, animal care, food processing, cotton and textile industries, and refining operations, you are at higher risk for getting this illness.

Certain types of work put you at greater risk for occupational lung diseases than others. For instance, working in a car garage or textile factory can expose you to unsafe chemicals, dusts, and fibers.

Most occupational lung diseases are caused by repeated, long-term exposure. But, even a severe, single exposure to an unsafe agent can damage the lungs.

Smoking can make occupational lung disease worse.

The following are the most common symptoms of lung diseases. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath, which often gets worse with activity
  • Chest pain
  • Chest tightness
  • Abnormal breathing patterns

The symptoms of occupational lung diseases may look like other medical conditions or problems. Always talk with a healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

Occupational lung diseases, like other lung diseases, usually require an initial chest X-ray for diagnosis. Tests that may be needed to determine the type and severity of the lung disease include:

Chest X-ray

A test that takes pictures of internal tissues, bones, and organs.

Pulmonary function tests (PFTs)

These tests help measure the lungs' ability to move air into and out of the lungs. The tests are usually done with special machines that you breathe into.


This test uses a flexible tube called a bronchoscope to view the bronchi (the main airways of the lungs). Bronchoscopy helps diagnose lung problems, look for blockages, take out samples of tissue and/or fluid, and/or to help remove a foreign body. Bronchoscopy may include a biopsy or bronchoalveolar lavage.

Lung biopsy

Taking out a small piece of tissue, cells, or fluid from the lung so they can be examined under a microscope.

Bronchoalveolar lavage

Removing cells from the lower respiratory tract to help identify inflammation and rule out certain causes.

Blood tests

This test measures the amount of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood. Other blood tests may be used to look for possible infections and other problems.

Computed tomography scan (CT or CAT scan)

This is an imaging test that uses X-rays and a computer to make detailed images of the body. A CT scan shows details of the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than regular X-rays. They can be used to diagnose lung diseases, monitor disease progression, and evaluate response to treatment.

There is no cure for most occupational lung diseases. Treatments are aimed at:

  • Preventing further exposure
  • Preventing more lung scarring
  • Managing symptoms
  • Helping you stay active and healthy

Treatment depends on the type of lung disease. There is no way to fix lung scarring that has already happened.

Occupational lung diseases are preventable. The best prevention is to avoid the inhaled substances that cause lung problems. Other preventive measures include:

  • Do not smoke. Smoking can increase the risk for occupational lung disease.
  • Wear proper protective devices, such as facemasks or respirators, if needed when around airborne irritants and dusts.
  • Evaluate lung function with spirometry as often as advised by your healthcare provider. This helps you get familiar with your lung function and watch for changes.
  • Understand the risks of lung disease at work and use protection to reduce your risk.
  • Hire an occupational health expert to investigate your work environment for risks for occupational lung diseases.
  • Occupational lung diseases are lung problems caused by repeated and long-term exposure to certain irritants that are breathed into the lungs.
  • Smoking can worsen occupational lung disease.
  • Breathing problems, such as coughing and shortness of breath (which often gets worse with activity), are common symptoms of occupational lung diseases.
  • Tests that help measure the lungs' ability to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide are used to diagnose occupational lung diseases. Imaging tests may also be used to see how severe the problem is and monitor it over time.
  • There is no way to repair or regrow damaged lung tissue. The goal of treatment is to prevent further exposure to the irritant, prevent worsening of the disease, manage symptoms, and help you stay active and healthy. Treatment depends on the type of lung disease.
  • Occupational lung diseases are preventable, and this is a key part of managing these diseases.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.


January 16, 2018


Occupational and environmental exposures associated with ILD, UpToDate, Approach to the adult with interstitial lung disease: Diagnostic testing, UpToDate, Approach to the adult with interstitial lung disease: Clinical evaluation. UpToDate

Reviewed By:  

Blaivas, Allen J., DO,Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN