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7 Industries that Put Employees at Risk for Lung Damage

As an Occupational Health Provider, we look to assist our clients in minimizing risk on the job, assuring positive impacts for employees and employers across the nation.  This is why we would like to share with you new research into employment choices that leave workers at risk for long term lung damage.  What are the jobs? How can you minimize employee risk? What hazards persist among these positions?

1.   Hospitality Industry

The hospitality industry, is among the leading industries in which employees see consistent exposure to chemicals and carcinogens.  From food service to hotel working, these employees see risks through smoke, chemicals, and interaction with others.

Bartenders and Waitresses

Serving food and drinks in a smoke-filled room puts bartenders at high risk for lung disease, especially if they are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke over many years.  Although many states have a ban in place banning patrons from smoking in restaurants, employees in non-complying states are at risk for inhalation of smoke.

Secondhand smoke has been linked to lung cancer. It remains a threat to workers in cities where smoking hasn’t been banned in public places. Casino workers also can find themselves in a cloud of smoke.


Baking is near the top of the list of asthma-provoking jobs, which altogether account for an estimated 15 percent of new asthma cases in adults.  An asthmatic reaction to enzymes used to alter the consistency of dough, as well as allergens shed by bugs, such as beetles, moths, and weevils, often found in flour, is common as well.


Some cleaning supplies, even so-called “green” or “natural” products, have harmful chemicals that have been linked with developing asthma. Some release volatile organic compounds, which can contribute to chronic respiratory problems and allergic reactions. Read labels and follow instructions.

2. Manufacturing Industry

Factory workers in many fields put themselves at risk for occupational asthma and long term lung damage.

Textile Manufacturing

Byssinosis, also called brown lung disease, is common among textile workers who make upholstery, towels, socks, bed linens, and clothes.

Workers can inhale particles released from cotton or other materials. When cotton is ripped apart, it creates huge amounts of dust and can cause significant airflow obstruction.

Food Manufacturing

In food plants, diacetyl—a flavoring agent used in microwave popcorn, some wines, and fast foods—can cause a devastating and sometimes deadly disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, a close relative of COPD.

Metal Manufacturing

Since the early 1900s, employees in manufacturing were at risk for something known as “Hard Metal Disease.” Linked to Tungsten Carbide and Cobalt in the manufacturing process, symptoms include the following: tightening of the chest, cough, clubbing, external dyspnea (shortness of breath), fatigue, the production of sputum, and weight loss.

3. Automotive Industry

Occupational asthma can be a risk for those in the automobile industry, particularly auto-body repair.  Auto spray-on paints, such as isocyanate and polyurethane products, can irritate skin, create allergies, and cause chest tightness and severe breathing trouble.

4. Construction Industry

Either due to the building or demolition, construction workers are at continued risk for lung damage.  Workers who demolish old buildings or do remodeling can be exposed to asbestos used as insulation around pipes or in floor tiles.

Exposure also seems to raise the risk of small-cell lung cancer and can lead to asbestosis, or scarring of the lung. Removal should be left to trained and licensed crews.  Wearing protective gear, including a respirator, when working around older buildings and avoiding smoking can help.

5. Mining Industry

Miners are at high risk for a number of lung diseases, including COPD, because of dust exposure. Airborne silica, also known as quartz, can lead to silicosis, a disease that scars lungs.

Coal Mining

Coal miners are at risk for another type of lung-scarring disease called pneumoconiosis (black lung). Years of exposure to coal dust is the culprit. Protective equipment can limit the amount of dust inhaled.

6. Salon and Beauty Industry

Many of the chemicals that come into contact with individuals working in the hair care or nail care profession can cause increased sensitivity and risk for asthmatic reaction.

Nail Salon Workers

Asthma triggers found in nail salons include fingernail glue remover, artificial nail liquid, formaldehyde in nail polish and nail hardener, nail primer, disinfectants, fingernail glue, and much more. Toxic fumes and asthma make for a dangerous combination.

Hair Salon Workers

The link between hair spray and asthma is understandable. A 2011 study published in the International Archives of Allergy and Immunology administered questionnaires to 1,334 hairdressers and found that just under 10 percent had asthma. Hair dyes have also been linked to asthma, making the beauty salon an ugly workplace with asthma triggers.  Good ventilation is important, because wearing a respirator might cause appointments to cancel. Know what’s in the products you’re working with. If they’re not safe, find a safer product.

Other Industries with High Exposure to Workplace Carcinogens

These industries aren’t the only ones that place employees at risk for lung damage.  Firefighters, are commonly exposed to smoke and other carcinogens.  Farmers both of animals and plants see risks for adverse respiratory reaction.  Transportation and Dock Workers see risks from product handling and exhaust fumes.  Health Care Workers come in contact with both patients and latex dust that can cause long term asthmatic or allergic reactions.

We would like to thank many sources for assisting in the development of this article including WebMD, Health.com, and EverydayHealth.com for sharing their additional insight into the riskiest jobs for negative respiratory reactions.  We welcome you to read the most cited OSHA violations of the past year to see how you can provide your workers a safe environment in which to work.

Nova Medical Centers is a leading Occupational Health Provider with locations in Texas, Tennessee, and Georgia. We welcome you to join us on LinkedIn, download our app, and contact us to see how you can get the most from your occupational health provider.

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