Close this search box.

COPD Risk from More Than Smoking Alone

In previous Lifelines articles like “How Smoking Could Hurt Your Career,” we’ve discussed how, in addition to lung cancer and many other diseases, smoking is the largest risk factor for chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder – better known as COPD.

Now a new study of former Department of Energy workers has concluded that about 18 percent of COPD cases can be attributed to occupational exposures in construction. This makes occupational exposures in construction by far the second highest risk factor for the disease.

LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni

“These findings make it clear that COPD is a serious risk for construction workers,” says LIUNA General Secretary Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Fortunately, with worker training and the proper precautions from contractors can be eliminated.”

COPD, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, is a respiratory disease that gradually makes it harder for a person to breathe. Unlike with asthma, which also affects a person’s lungs, the effects of COPD can’t be reversed by using inhalers and never go away.

About 13 million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with COPD and it’s estimated that another 13 million people have the disease but remain undiagnosed. Even with all the undiagnosed cases, COPD is still the third highest cause of death in the U.S., trailing only heart disease and cancer.

How Are Workers Exposed?

Workers increase their chances of developing COPD when they perform tasks such as:

  • Welding, including thermal cutting, soldering and brazing
  • Cutting block and grinding forms
  • Asbestos removal
  • Cutting, grinding and machining metal

Though smoking is still the main cause of COPD, occupational exposures are responsible for up to 50 percent of cases in people who have never smoked.

These tasks expose workers to harmful vapors, gasses, dust and fumes that are inhaled into the lungs, where they cause lasting damage. These harmful substances include, but are not limited to:

Symptoms of COPD

  • Frequent cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing up sputum (a mixture of saliva and mucus)
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest

Preventing COPD

  1. The easiest way to prevent COPD is to quit smoking and encourage others on your site to do the same.
  2. Implementing a comprehensive site safety and health plan that details how hazards like those listed above will be handled is a key step in preventing harmful exposures.
  3. Contractors should make use of the hierarchy of controls to control exposures to harmful substances, beginning by eliminating the substance if possible and proceeding to engineering controls, administrative controls and personal protective equipment, in that order.
  4. Many of the substances linked to COPD risk among construction workers have OSHA-mandated permissible exposure limits (PELs). Contractors should be aware of what these PELS are and take steps to meet them.
  5. Because some PELS may not be protective enough, the Fund encourages contractors to go beyond mandated PELs and provide respirators to workers when they perform tasks that expose them to COPD-causing vapors, gasses, dusts and fumes.

Former construction workers at Department of Energy sites should take advantage of free medical screenings available as part of the Building Trades National Medical Screening Program.

The LHSFNA has a variety of publications to help signatory contractors and members reduce COPD-related exposures on the job, including health alerts and pamphlets on silica, asbestos, solvents and respiratory protection. The Fund’s Laborers’ Health & Wellness: COPD brochure also contains more information on the risk factors for COPD. All of these publications are available through the Fund’s online Publications Catalogue or by calling 202-628-5465.

[Nick Fox]

Recent Lifelines