What is Occupational Disease?
An “Occupational disease” is any chronic ailment which occurs primarily as a result of an exposure to risk factors arising from work activity. “Work-related diseases” have multiple causes, where factors in the work environment may play a role, together with other risk factors, in the development of such diseases.
An occupational disease is typically identified when it is shown that it is more prevalent in a given body of workers than in the general population, or in other worker populations.
Factors that contribute to the development of occupational diseases
Occupational diseases can be caused by:
- Biological agents – Bacteria, Viruses, Fungi, Parasites, Insects, Plants, Birds, Animals, Humans, etc.
- Chemical agents – Beryllium, Lead, Benzene, Isocyanates, etc.
- Ergonomic issues – Repetitive movements, improper set up of workstation, Poor lighting, Poor design of tools, etc.
- Physical agents – Ionizing and non-ionizing radiation, Magnetic fields, Pressure extremes (high pressure or vacuum), Extreme temperatures, Noise, Vibration, etc.
- Psychosocial issues – Stress, Violence, Bullying, Harassment, lack of recognition, etc.
There are other factors that determine the development of an occupational disease, including:
- Amount of exposure or dose entering the body
- Duration or length of exposure
- Route of entry into the body
- Toxicity of the chemical
- Removal from the body
- Biological variation (individual susceptibility)
- Effects of interaction, such as synergism (e.g., smoking, alcohol use, exposure to other chemicals).
Exposure to the hazardous agent may occur only once in a while or only in very small amounts, or the exposure may be daily and/or to very large amounts. The number of weeks or years on the job may provide an estimate of the degree of exposure. In general, the higher the exposure (duration and/or amount), the higher the risk of developing a health effect.
What are the most common occupational diseases?
This list was established based on information from the CDC, the CCOHS, the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), the ILO and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.
1. Skin diseases: Occupational skin diseases are ranked among the top five occupational diseases in many countries.
Occupational skin diseases and conditions are generally caused by chemicals and having wet hands for long periods while at work. Eczema is by far the most common, but urticaria, sunburn and skin cancer are also of concern.
Contact dermatitis due to irritation is inflammation of the skin which results from a contact with an irritant. It has been observed that this type of dermatitis does not require prior sensitization of the immune system. There have been studies to support that past or present atopic dermatitis is a risk factor for this type of dermatitis. Common irritants include detergents, acids, alkalies, oils, organic solvents and reducing agents.
The acute form of this dermatitis develops on exposure of the skin to a strong irritant or caustic chemical. This exposure can occur as a result of accident at a workplace. The irritant reaction starts to increase in its intensity within minutes to hours of exposure to the irritant and reaches its peak quickly. After the reaction has reached its peak level, it starts to heal. This process is known as decrescendo phenomenon. The most frequent potent irritants leading to this type of dermatitis are acids and alkaline solutions. The symptoms include redness and swelling of the skin along with the formation of blisters.
The chronic form occurs as a result of repeated exposure of the skin to weak irritants over long periods of time.
Clinical manifestations of the contact dermatitis are also modified by external factors such as environmental factors (mechanical pressure, temperature, and humidity) and predisposing characteristics of the individual (age, sex, ethnic origin, preexisting skin disease, atopic skin diathesis, and anatomic region exposed.
Another occupational skin disease is Glove related hand urticaria. It has been reported as an occupational problem among the health care workers. This type of hand urticaria is believed to be caused by repeated wearing and removal of the gloves. The reaction is caused by the latex or the nitrile present in the gloves.
How to Prevent Skin Conditions
HSE advises the APC approach for preventing skin disease at work.
- Avoid direct contact with substances, products, and wet work. If it is possible, find a different material that is safer and remove the harmful substance from the work place. If not, ensure gloves are made available for workers to use.
- Protect your skin from contamination and/or irritation by wearing PPE such as safety gloves and/or using a pre-work barrier cream to protect the skin specifically. Make sure you wash your hands before drinking and/or eating with a quality hand cleaner that removes industrial grimes.
- Check for conditions like itchy, dry, and/or red skin. You can spot the early signs of dermatitis and other issues before they become too serious.
- Respiratory illnesses: This can include asthma, disease of the lung and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD). According to OHCOW, asthma is considered to be the most common occupational lung disease in Canada. Furthermore, OHCOW states that there are over 300 chemicals in the workplace that are known to cause asthma, with the disease being most prevalent in the auto parts, foam and plastic manufacturing industries. The ILO lists work-related asthma as being caused by sensitizing agents or irritants.
- Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs): MSDs are prevalent in most workplaces, even in office settings. Indeed, office workers may be at risk of repetitive strain injuries (RSI) such as carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis. The EU-OSHA says that most work-related MSDs develop over time and can be caused by repetitive movements, awkward positions, handling loads, high work demands, lack of breaks, etc.
According to Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS), MSDs account for 43 per cent of all work-related injuries.
4. Lead Poisoning: Lead poisoning can be a huge risk for anyone who has spent time in an occupation that deals with Lead and leads to many occupational diseases. Some of these jobs include shipbuilding, lead smelting, pottery glazing, stripping paint, or plumbing. Breathing in lead dust can cause serious health issues such as infertility, kidney disease, and brain damage.
If you absorb lead, it then circulates in the bloodstream before gathering in your bones.
Workers who have absorbed lead can go many years before any symptoms occur. The symptoms are nausea, weight loss, memory issues and/or stomach pain.
How to Prevent Lead Poisoning
Not only can we absorb lead through breathing, we can swallow it through drinking, eating, smoking, or biting your nails.
- It is important to make sure you provide a designated eating area for anyone working with lead and ensure they wash their hands properly before eating.
- You can control the exposure of lead to your workers by carrying out regular risk assessments and also equipment maintenance. Train your staff on how to prevent lead poisoning.
Doing this can reduce the risk of this occupational disease for your employees.
It is important to make sure that their work environment is spacious and well ventilated.
- Hearing loss: NIOSH conducted a study from 2000 – 2008 among U.S. workers who had higher occupational noise exposures than the general population. They found that 18 per cent of their surveyed sample had hearing loss. NIOSH says that workers in the mining, construction and manufacturing industries need better hearing conservation strategies. Hearing loss and auditory issues are also a problem in hospitality and healthcare settings.
- Cancer: The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work states that cancer accounts for 24 per cent of global work-related deaths. Occupational cancers occur when workers are in contact with carcinogenic substances in their workplace. Certain substances are associated with different cancers, and certain carcinogens can be especially prevalent in certain industries.
Asbestos-related diseases are now some of the most well-known incidences of occupational disease. These include cancers such as lung cancer, gastro-intestinal cancer, cancer of the larynx or pharynx and mesothelioma (a cancer which occurs in the thin layer of tissue covering most internal organs). Asbestos exposure is the number one cause of occupational death in Canada.
The Mesothelioma Center says that 445 Canadians were diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2016 (around 1.6 of every 100,000 Canadians). Canada’s mesothelioma rate is one of the highest in the world. In 2017, 490 Canadians died from mesothelioma.
Read Also: What is an occupational injury
- Stress and mental health disorders: Multiple sources state that mental health disorders can also be considered as occupational diseases in certain contexts. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is most commonly cited. PTSD can affect workers in high pressure workplaces, such as the military or law enforcement. According to 2013 statistics presented by the Canadian Mental Health Association, 8 per cent of Canadians who experience a traumatic event develop PTSD.
- Infectious diseases: NIOSH states that healthcare workers run the risk of contracting infectious diseases such as hepatitis B and C, tuberculosis (TB) and even the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It also notes that TB is also a risk for workers in social services or correctional facilities as they are in constant contact with high-risk populations. This is also the case for lab workers.
NIOSH says that “Bloodborne and airborne pathogens represent a significant class of exposures for the 6 million U.S. health care workers.”
9. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Repetitive hand motions and awkward wrist positions can increase the pressure on the nerves and tendons in the carpal tunnel. Anyone can be at risk of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome if they carry out the same tasks each day with their hands.
Jobs such as cashiers, hairdressers, and factory workers are all at risk of developing this occupational disease if they do not take precautions to prevent this.
This condition can affect any person of any age.
The symptoms to spot are tingling fingers, a loss of manual dexterity, and shoulder pain. It can stop the sufferer from sleeping and doing their usual tasks at work.
How to Prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
- The easiest way for you to ensure your staff are not at risk of developing the condition is by testing their work environment and daily tasks. Are they putting their hands or wrists in awkward positions?
- You can redesign their work stations, which will reduce the pressure placed on their hands and educate your staff about the dangers of repetitive movements.
- Speak to them because it shows you care about their well being and helps to create a safe culture.
10. Computer Vision Syndrome: Working at a desk all day brings a different set of risks for staff. Although they are less likely to develop a skin or lung disease, long periods of time spent staring at a computer screen can lead to serious eye conditions.
If a person is complaining of eye strain, headaches, muscle aches, blurred vision, eye irritation or dry eyes, then they could be suffering from computer vision syndrome.
How to Prevent Computer Vision Syndrome
Our eyes work harder and therefore strain if there is poor lighting, incorrect seating posture, and improper viewing distance (PDF) from the digital screen.
- If there is a glare on the monitor, it can also cause our eyes to struggle. It is important to ensure that each worker’s setup is correct.
- Once you have corrected their workstation to ensure that their eyes are not having to strain, there is special eyewear available. This can reduce glare and make it easier for our eyes to cope with long hours in front of the screen.
- Educate staff on the dangers of staring at a screen all day. Raise suggestions on how to reduce risks, such as not looking at a screen before bed in the dark.
- By fixing their setup and encouraging staff to take regular breaks, you can reduce the risks of computer vision syndrome.
How to Prevent Occupational Disease
In situations where there is not a clear way to control a hazard, or if legislation does not impose a limit or guideline, you should seek guidance from occupational health professionals such as an occupational hygienist or safety professional about what is “good practice” or “standard practice” when working in that situation.
- Learn about the hazards at your workplace (e.g., find out what products are being used, understand how actions such as heavy lifting can affect the body, etc.).
- Employers should develop – and employees should follow – systems, programs, procedures, and practices that are designed to protect people from workplace hazards.
- Communicate all health hazards and exposures to employees. Provide the appropriate information and training for the hazards present.
- Work with health professionals to investigate injuries or illnesses that may have characteristics that suggest it may be work-related. (e.g., tell your health professional where you work, what you do, and what products you work with).
- Keep a list of all jobs and industries you have worked in.