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How Smoking Could Hurt Your Career

If you smoke and your job requires you to wear a respirator, you might want to consider quitting your cigarette habit.

LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck

“Smoking a cigarette might feel good right now, but it exacts a heavy toll on the lungs. And it’s not just cancer and heart disease that smoking invites,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Every time smokers light up, they increase their risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD. COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, gradually makes it harder and harder to breathe. It can also make wearing a respirator impossible.”

Respirators are designed to protect the wearer from breathing in harmful dusts, fogs, fumes and mists. At construction sites, common airborne contaminants that would cause workers to wear respiratory protection include:

  • Lead dust and fumes from grinding, welding, cutting or brazing surfaces coated with lead-based paint
  • Silica dust from cutting concrete or sandblasting
  • Solvent vapors from adhesives, paints, strippers, cleaning solvents and spray coatings
  • Isocyanate vapors from spray foam insulation and certain spray paints or coatings

When a construction task requires you to wear a respirator, OSHA requires employers to have a respiratory protection program in place. Because respirators themselves can affect breathing, the program includes a medical evaluation of the worker performed by a health care provider. If you have difficulty breathing – a consequence of COPD – you will not be allowed to wear a respirator. This means you will not be able to perform the task and eventually may end up without a job.

COPD is a leading killer in the United States and Canada and is most often caused by smoking. Smoking is directly responsible for nine out of every 10 deaths related to COPD. COPD can take years to develop. It tends to appear during middle age when people are likely to have family responsibilities and, even when health is not in question, it becomes increasingly difficult to make a career switch.

COPD symptoms include:

  • A nagging cough (often called “smoker’s cough”)
  • Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
  • Wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe)
  • Tightness in the chest

As COPD progresses, symptoms may also include:

  • Having trouble catching your breath or talking
  • Blue or gray lips and/or fingernails (a sign of low oxygen levels in your blood)
  • Trouble with mental alertness
  • A very fast heartbeat
  • Swelling in the feet and ankles
  • Weight loss

“The best way to prevent COPD is to not smoke, or quit if you do,” says Borck. “According to the American Lung Association, along with the health benefits of reduced risk of cancer and heart disease, breathing improves and the likelihood of developing COPD decreases almost immediately.”

  • Two weeks to three months after quitting: Lung function increases.
  • One to nine months after quitting: Coughing and shortness of breath decreases; cilia (tiny hair-like structures that move mucus out of the lungs) regain normal function in the lungs, increasing the ability to handle mucus, clean the lungs and reduce the risk of infection.

The LHSFNA offers a number of brochures, health alerts and posters pertaining to the hazards of tobacco and tips for quitting smoking. These materials can be ordered through the Fund’s Publications Catalogue. Quit Smoking Survival Kits developed by the LHSFNA’s Health Promotion staff can be ordered by calling 202-628-5465.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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