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As you likely know from your own household chores, dust is all around us. In fact, the average home in the United States collects upwards of 40 pounds of dust each year.* But, how much dust are you combatting at work?
The truth is that we breathe in dust each day; between plant pollen, textile fibers and even human skin cells, there are billions of particles in the air. For the most part, our bodies protect us and prevent particles from entering deep into our lungs by trapping them in our nose and throat. However, some jobs come with dust and particulate hazards that can cause serious damage to your respiratory system over time.
Today I’m listing the seven worst jobs for your lungs.

Side Profile Portrait against a Dark Background of a Caucasian adult man coughing with his hand close against his mouth and chest lifted Cape Town South Africa

1. Construction Worker

During renovations and demolitions, you’re likely to come into contact with a number of different hazardous dusts including mould, lead, wood dust and even asbestos which was a popular building material up until the 1970s. All of which can take a toll on your lungs.
If you’re breaking new ground, what’s in the dirt? Silica (also referred to as quartz) is one of the most common minerals in the world. It’s also a known carcinogen. Since it’s found in soil, sand, concrete, rock, granite and landscaping materials, this substance is often encountered in construction jobs. Inhaling silica dust causes inflammation and scarring in the upper nodes of your lungs, leading to the occupational lung disease called silicosis as well as lung cancer. Of the 142,000 Ontarians exposed to silica, there are a reported 300 cases of occupational lung cancer diagnosed each year.

2. Welder

When you’re welding or grinding, you’re at risk of breathing in fumes that contain aluminum, arsenic, beryllium, lead and manganese. In our blog, Welding: the Cancer Risk No One Thinks About, Michael Douglas explains why leaving the shop door open for ventilation isn’t enough. While studies from thirty years ago suggested that welding fumes were “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, we now know that the hazardous particles emitted from welding work are linked to various types of cancers including lung, eye and kidney.

3. Firefighterdust particle facts

Whether you’re fighting structural or wildfires, the visible smoke is only part of the challenge. In addition to carbon monoxide and other gaseous hazards, there are risks associated with the fragments in the air from whatever is burning; many of the products of combustion are created when chemicals from fuels, furniture, paint, textiles or cleaning products burn. Most of these fragments are not visible to the eye and can penetrate through clothing as well as go deep into the lungs.

4. Vehicle Maintenance Worker

When performing auto body repair, welding, grinding, sanding, blasting and painting are common parts of the job. Each of these tasks comes with their own set of risks. It is important to understand each of these risks and take appropriate actions to limit your exposures.
With heavy mobile equipment maintenance, you’re also at risk of breathing in diesel exhaust. It’s estimated that 301,000 Ontario workers are exposed to diesel particulate matter (DPM) while on the job, and 170 develop lung cancer as a result each year. In addition, 45 cases of bladder cancer are also attributed to this carcinogen annually.

5. Miner

Surface, underground and quarry mining are all high-risk jobs when it comes to respiratory disease. Whether it’s from the diesel particulate matter (mentioned above) from the engines running or the blasting, crushing and transporting of minerals, there are a ton of different dust hazards in the air in every mining environment.

6. Pharmaceutical Worker

OSHA has identified worker exposure to hazardous drugs in the pharmaceutical industry as a problem of increasing health concern. Preparation, administration, manufacturing and disposal of hazardous medications may expose hundreds of thousands of workers, principally in healthcare facilities and the pharmaceutical industry, to potentially significant workplace levels of these chemicals. Workers who handle powdered chemicals on job each day can be especially at risk from inhaling high amounts of dust.

7. Farmer

Work life on a farm can have you shoveling and loading silage, plowing fields and spraying pesticides, which are a few of the reasons why farmers are known to have high morbidity and mortality rates from certain respiratory disease.* Luckily, most of these respiratory issues are preventable by controlling the harmful exposures to organic dust, toxic gases and chemicals (i.e., replacing the air filter in the cab of a tractor or wearing respiratory protection).
In addition to dust, Farmer’s Lung is another known respiratory ailment. This allergic disease is caused by breathing in the dust from mouldy crops including hay, straw, corn, grain and tobacco.*
Respiratory problems from organic dust isn’t limited to farmers alone. It’s important to note that anyone using the products produced by the agriculture industry can be at risk. This is commonly seen in bakeries where workers can be exposed to airborne flour dust.

How to manage dust at work

When it comes to protecting your lungs, follow the Hierarchy of Controls and use respiratory protection when required. It’s essential that you understand the hazard and associated risks, eliminate or substitute if possible and manage it with the appropriate controls. If necessary, wear the proper respiratory protection for your unique workplace hazards. Hint: you can download our free Guide to Respiratory Protection here.
Air Sampling and real time dust monitoring are ways to gather information related to the particular hazards at your workplace. These methods can provide valuable information on the concentration, size and makeup of your workplace dust. By detecting and monitoring the dust in your environment, you can accurately recognize and evaluate your hazards, which will allow you to implement control strategies like containing, ventilating or eliminating the hazard at its source.

Jonathan McCallum

Market Segment Manager: Occupational Health, Industrial Hygiene & Environmental Monitoring

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