Respiratory protection. In construction and other heavy industries like manufacturing, it’s not only required by law, but can help prevent costly, painful, and potentially fatal illnesses. Using the right respirators at all times has greatly reduced many of these illnesses, but proper protection must continue to be enforced. When employers don’t comply, they assume the legal—and moral—consequences.
What Is Respiratory Protection?
Respiratory protection comes down to two things: engineering control measures and protective gear. The best way to prevent occupational lung disease is through things like ventilation to reduce particles in the air, and use of non-toxic materials.
When these engineering methods are not possible, then protective gear such as respirators and face masks must be used. There are different masks and respirators available, each designed to protect against different hazards. Employees at worksites must be provided the right type of protection to keep their lungs safe from breathable dangers.
Who Is Responsible for Protecting Employees?
Under federal law, employers must provide their employees with respiratory protection while at a worksite or other place of business. This is only the case, however, when respiratory protection is necessary due to known particulates in the air. When employees want respiratory protection not necessary by law, they can request masks and ventilators from employers but the employer does not have to provide them. Employees may then provide their own masks or other protection to ensure their own safety.
What Are the Common Occupational Lung Diseases?
A wide range of occupational lung diseases and illnesses are possible, but certain ones are more common than others. These include:
- Occupational asthma: Asthma is a disease in which a person’s respiratory tract narrows, making breathing more difficult. Exposure to different substances or chemicals, including those found in dust, flour, latex gloves, and mold can worsen existing asthma or cause it to develop in someone who previously did not have asthma.
- Black lung: Technically called coal worker’s pneumoconiosis (CWP), this lung disease is caused by long-term exposure to coal dust. It can cause shortness of breath and difficulty or labored breathing, and advanced forms of the disease are often fatal. Due to the use of respiratory protection, rates of black lung among coalminers have fallen more than 20% over the last 30 years.
- Silicosis: Caused by inhaling fine particles of silica dust, usually in the form of quartz or similar minerals. It can occur due to long-term exposure to small amounts of silica dust, or short-term exposure to very large amounts. It is marked by inflammation and scarring in the lungs, which causes shortness of breath, coughing, and may be fatal.
- Asbestosis: Similar to silicosis, this lung disease is caused by exposure to different forms of asbestos in the air. It causes inflammation and scarring of the lungs, which often results in shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing, and chest pain. It is most common among people who mine asbestos. While bad in and of itself, it can also result in additional complications such as lung cancer and heart disease.
- Mesothelioma: This specific type of lung cancer is caused by exposure to asbestos, and can result from complications of asbestosis. It develops in the thin layer of tissue that covers the lungs, called the mesothelium, and though it can occur around different organs, the most common place is the lungs. Symptoms of mesothelioma include shortness of breath, chest pain, coughing, and weight loss. It is particular devastating because it can take decades for the cancer to develop and for symptoms to occur, long after the exposure.
Who Is at Risk?
Construction and manufacturing workers are typically most at risk for occupational lung diseases. Many of the materials and methods used in construction introduce airborne particulates of asbestos, silica, and other minerals to the lungs – even something like cutting tile can cause lung diseases. Miners who mine coal or asbestos are also particularly at risk. Office workers are more likely to get occupational asthma, though working in old buildings with asbestos can create opportunities for exposure and illness.
If you suspect that your lung disease is occupational, please contact Wingate, Russotti, Shapiro & Halperin, LLP, at (212) 986-7353 for a free consultation. We’re a top construction litigation firm and we know workers’ compensation law inside and out.