All you need to know about Common Workplace Health Hazards & Occupational Diseases

When the chemicals are mishandled, they can cause severe and various occupational diseases or injuries due to exposure to chemicals over a short or extended period. Simply put in, occupational diseases are diseases or illnesses contracted during work, at the workplace.

Here we will highlight the causes of occupational diseases, some of the most common occupational diseases and health hazards associated with the chemical work, and how to protect the employees.

What are the causes of occupational diseases?

The risk factors which could lead to the development of diseases at work can be divided into four categories:

  1. Exposure to chemical agents –

    exposure to chemical agents, comes via four different routes. It comes through skin and eye contact, ingestion or inhalation. For example, chemicals can be present in the air in various forms, such as gas, dust, smoke, vapours, etc. Inhaled chemicals can cause many occupational diseases, ranging from irritation to cancer. 
  2. Exposure to physical agents –

    physical agents such as noise, vibrations or radiation can also cause occupational diseases. Excessive noise can produce hearing damage or deafness. Vibrations can lead to dizziness, vomiting, and spine alterations (pain in the lower back and digestive disorders). Ionizing and non-ionizing radiation can cause, depending on the exposure levels and duration, various occupational diseases, from minor skin and eye disorders to tumours and cancer.
  3. Exposure to extreme temperatures –

    exposure to extreme heat or cold causes injuries and damage to the human body, sometimes leading to death. Depending on the degree of exposure and burns, many pathologies can be developed, such as loss of hand skills (even amputation) or hypothermia.
  4. Finally, exposure to biological agents –

    microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, or fungi can cause various illnesses. These pathogens live and reproduce within the human or animal body and are also contagious; they can spread by physical contact, saliva or air at work and outside of work. Unlike previously mentioned agents, exposure to which only leads to the development of local occupational diseases which are not spread, biological agents can spread the diseases outside of workplaces. 

This article will mainly focus on chemical-related occupational diseases and health hazards.

What are the most common chemical-related occupational diseases and health hazards in the workplace? 

Handling harmful or hazardous substances, chemicals or materials in the workplace always carries certain risks. These products need to be handled correctly to minimise the risk of harm to human health and the environment. Many hazardous products are not obscure at the workplace but are relatively common, and many everyday items contain them. For example, long term exposure to welding or diesel fumes through inhalation can lead to severe health issues. A similar case is with the volatile chemicals, which is of utmost importance that workplaces install and implement appropriate control measures to reduce or minimise the risk of exposure and prevent occupational diseases.

Common Occupational Diseases

As already mentioned, harmful or hazardous chemicals can cause serious health problems by damaging the human body. In some cases, they attack the organs or vital systems such as lungs, liver, kidneys, heart, skin, eyes, and even reproductive system. Hazardous substances can cause harm acutely or may be harmful only after repeated exposure. Sometimes, the exposure symptoms are immediate; other times, they are delayed and appear after many years. This can be the case with cancers, damage, and diseases connected to the lungs, liver, kidneys, and heart.

Skin diseases are usually developed after chemical agents contact the skin. The most common skin diseases that workers can get at the workplaces are:

  • Eczema and contact dermatitis – Eczema causes inflammation of the skin, also known as dermatitis. Sometimes causes skin cracks, severe itching and pain. There are two types: allergic (resulting from a delayed reaction to an allergen, e.g. nickel) and irritant (resulting from direct reaction to a detergent or soap containing sodium lauryl sulfate, for example). Some substances act as both allergens and irritants (e.g. wet cement). Some substances may cause problems only after exposure to sunlight, bringing on phototoxic dermatitis.
  • Eruptions – similar to eczema, are an itchy and inflamed skin rash that itches and hurts. 
  • Skin cancer – some substances are known carcinogens and can cause skin cancer. The cancer is caused by the abnormal growth of squamous (epithelial) cells. Heavy metals such as nickel, arsenic, cadmium and their compounds are known human carcinogens and can cause many different cancers, including skin cancer.

The most common occupational skin disease is contact eczema. Around 75% of cases of contact eczema are of the irritant type.

Workers who are continuously exposed to irritating and hazardous chemicals are at high risk of suffering from respiratory diseases. Respiratory diseases are developed after inhaled chemical agents, usually in vapours, gas, mist, spray or dust. The most common respiratory illnesses that are caused by the inhalation of hazardous chemicals are:

  • Asthma – inflammation of the lung airways leads to shortness of breath, cough and wheezing attacks, and feeling of tightness in the chest. It is a chronic disease that can occur a few times per day or week. Chemical air pollutants and allergens cause it.
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) – it’s a progressive lung disease that can cause irreversible damage. The two most common conditions usually caused by this disease are bronchitis and emphysema.
  • Silicosis – a chronic disease caused by inhalation of large amounts of crystalline silica dust. The symptoms of silicosis usually take many years to develop. The main symptoms include persistent coughing, shortness of breath, weakness, and tiredness. The condition can ultimately lead to lung failure and fatal if serious complications develop.
  • Lung cancer also known as bronchial carcinoma, is caused by uncontrolled cell and tissues growth in the lungs. Chemicals such as asbestos, exhaust fumes from diesel vehicles, or heavy metals such as nickel, if inhaled as fumes, can cause lung cancer.

Many chemicals can also cause other diseases such as bladder, liver and kidney cancer and other diseases targeting blood or even the reproductive system. Usually, the diseases that develop are not acute but rather chronic, and the symptoms develop only after years of exposure.

The most common occupational health hazards are developed after the workers have been exposed to pesticides, heavy metals, corrosive substances, fumes, chemical vapours and sprays. Chemicals such as ammonia, asbestos, isocyanates and diesel exhaust fumes are the most common chemicals that cause occupational health hazards and diseases. Gas and vapours can cause an asphyxiation hazard that can cause the victim to lose consciousness or even die through the suffocation. Chemical mists and dust can also cause an aspiration hazard; these substances can enter airways and ultimately be fatal.

Businesses that use and handle hazardous chemicals need to be aware of the potential dangers associated with said chemicals to protect their employees from potential harm by reducing the exposure and risks. To be able to do this, employers need to have adequate knowledge. After identifying hazardous chemicals and potentially harmful effects associated with them, appropriate preventive and protective measures should be taken to ensure the workers’ health and safety.

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