Air quality in the workplace

Occupational risk factors is a term used to describe the harmful effects of breathing in various particles, gases, fumes or smoke in the workplace. These different factors are often referred to as ‘agents’.

Last Update 06/09/2023

Workplace guidelines exist in the European Union to ensure that there are limits on known harmful agents. These are decided by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure Limit Values (SCOEL). Ensuring safe levels of a number of dangerous agents is an on-going challenge.

This page provides information about the main triggers and causes of work-related lung diseases. Visit each disease section for more information on the symptoms and treatment of work-related lung diseases.

Is your workplace affecting your breathing? Take our quiz to find out more.

How does the air at work affect our lungs?

The effects of exposure to agents in the workplace can lead to a number of different lung-related diseases and short-term problems. The damage caused by exposures varies between people and is dependent on the time of exposure, the level of exposure and other factors, such as whether the person smokes or has any pre-existing conditions or if they use protective equipment at work.

For some agents, a high level of exposure over a long period is needed to cause a lung condition. However, exposure to some materials (e.g. asbestosis) for a few weeks may cause disease years later.

Occupational asthma

Asthma is the most common condition caused by factors at work. Occupational risk factors can also aggravate existing asthma.

Between 350 and 400 different agents are known to cause occupation asthma. These include agents from vegetables or animals and agents from metals, dyes and chemicals.

Some of the main agents include:

  • Acarians (ticks, mites)
  • Anhydrides
  • Algae
  • Aromatic amines
  • Arthropods
  • Diisocyanates
  • Biological enzymes
  • Drugs
  • Crustacea, seafood, fish
  • Fluxes
  • Flour
  • Fungicides
  • Moulds/fungi
  • Metals
  • Mushrooms
  • Quaternary amines
  • Plants
  • Reactive dyes
  • Plant-derived natural products
  • Wood dust or bark
  • Pollens
  • Various chemicals
  • Vegetable gums
  • Aliphatic amines (ethyleamines and others)

Occupational COPD

15-20% of COPD is thought to be linked to occupational exposures. This is due to exposure to mineral dusts, irritant gases or vapours in the air. Click on the table below to see a list of agents which may lead to COPD.

Occupational risk factors for COPD PDF

Occupational lung cancer

A huge variety of industries and occupations can increase the risk of lung cancer, however most occupational lung cancers are caused by asbestos. Research has discovered various agents linked with lung cancer – some with limited evidence and others with sufficient evidence to suggest a link.

Occupational risk factors for lung cancer PDF

Occupational pleural disease (including mesothelioma)

Pleural disease is almost exclusively linked to exposure to asbestos. Although asbestos-use is now illegal, people who were exposed to the condition at a young age are living with the illness in old age as symptoms of the disease may take up to 50 years to appear.

Acute inhalation injuries

This occurs from a single incident resulting in a sudden and large exposure to a material, such as a chemical spillage, fire, gas explosions or exposure to large amounts of dust.

It is caused by exposure to irritant gases, such as ammonia, ozone or chlorine, organic chemicals such as tear gas or mustard gas, metallic compounds such as mercury vapour or metal fumes, or complex mixtures of gases and particles such as solvent mixtures or fire smoke.

Occupational risk factors for acute inhalation injuries PDF

Occupational infections

These infections occur from exposure to bacteria and include tuberculosis (TB), Q Fever, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Measles and Legionnaires Disease.

The main group of people at risk are healthcare professionals treating the conditions in others.

Occupational risk factors for occupational infections PDF

Occupational interstitial lung diseases

There are a number of rare interstitial lung diseases linked with occupational exposures. These conditions are broadly known as pneumoconiosis and include well-known causes such as coal, asbestos and dust and other less-known causes such as crystalline silica, titanium and aluminium.

Another important interstitial lung disease is extrinsic allergic alveolitis, caused by an allergic reaction to an agent. Causes can include droppings and feathers from birds, humidified water from air conditioning systems, bacteria in the mist from hot tubs, and mouldy agents such as sawdust, cheese, hay, straw or grain.

Occupational risk factors for interstitial lung diseases PDF

Top tips for healthy lungs

  • If you have any lung symptoms that you suspect are caused, or made worse, by the work environment, it is important to mention this to your doctor or healthcare professional.
  • Once you have received a diagnosis and/or treatment for the condition, you will know whether you need to discuss with your employer how your work environment can be made safer for you, or whether you should consider moving to a different job.
  • If you have a condition that is proved to be caused by a problem in the work environment, you may think about seeking compensation. Your healthcare professional may be able to advise you on the best approach for this and how to speak to your employer.