Common workplace respiratory hazards

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Breathe easy: What common workplace respiratory hazards do your employees face?

We know that tobacco smoke and vaping are threats to pulmonary health. But commonplace occupations may present inhalant hazards without a worker even knowing. To protect the pulmonary health of your workforce, it’s wise to take a closer look at your operations, adding appropriate steps towards reducing or mitigating the risks of exposure to harmful effects of workplace respiratory hazards.

The lungs and the entire pulmonary system are some of the most essential elements of the human body. The ability to breathe deeply, easily and efficiently can have a major impact on overall health. An inability to breathe properly can become a life-threatening condition in only a matter of minutes. Learn how to identify the most common workplace respiratory hazards.


What constitutes a respiratory hazard?

A respiratory hazard is any particulate, gaseous or vaporous airborne contaminate that can be inhaled into the lungs. The presence of such contaminants in high quantities can also create what is known as an “oxygen deficient atmosphere”, in which not enough oxygen is present in each inhalation to sustain basic bodily functions.

Related: Beyond face masks: Workplace Personal Protective Equipment


What are occupational lung diseases?

John Hopkins Medicine classifies occupational lung disease as “repeated and long-term exposure to certain irritants on the job [which] can lead to an array of lung diseases that may have lasting effects, even after exposure ceases.” These irritants can range from everyday cleaners to job-specific materials that create hazards.

John Hopkins cites the following information regarding occupational lung diseases from the American Lung Association:

  • They are the most frequent, severe, and preventable cause of occupational-associated illness in the U.S.
  • Most are caused by repeated long-term exposure to hazardous agents, but can also occur to a severe, single exposure.
  • They are preventable.

In addition to these facts, Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) classifies respiratory hazards as one of the most frequently cited OSHA violations in the workplace.

Related: Employers, is your safety and health program up to par?


Occupations with high frequency of workplace respiratory hazards 

All workers can potentially experience respiratory hazards, so it’s important to analyze all work environments and processes to determine whether particulate, gaseous or vaporous airborne contaminants are present. Certain industries are more likely to expose workers to respiratory hazards due to the nature of the work involved, including:


Many agricultural workers operate in extremely dusty conditions, either from fields or crops that produce dust, such as grains. Agricultural workers can also be exposed to numerous airborne pesticides as well as harmful molds from crops.

Automotive, mechanic and transportation

Many harsh chemicals are present in automotive work that can lead to respiratory hazards, especially in professions such as auto body painting. Fumes from fuels can also pose hazards.


Prolonged exposure to flour dust can cause irritants and allergies in professional bakeries.

Bartending and waitressing

While many establishments have prohibited indoor smoking, servers that continue to be exposed to secondhand smoke are at greater risk for developing severe lung disease.

Construction, manufacturing, mining and welding

Mining operations are notorious for subjecting workers to harmful materials such as coal dust, but construction workers are also regularly exposed to all kinds of airborne contaminants, such as asbestos, wood dust, mold, lead and silica. Likewise, factories frequently make use of materials in bulk which can create large quantities of dust, gas or airborne chemicals. Welding materials also frequently contain chemicals which can put of toxic fumes when subjected to high heat.

Related: How sustainable workplace environments impact our health


It may seem obvious that smoke is a concern for firefighters, but what is less well known is that additional hazards can occur when certain materials burn, such as chemicals found in plastics, furniture and certain paints, which can make flames from a structural fire exponentially more toxic.

Cosmetology and hair styling

There are many chemicals in certain cosmetic procedures, such as those used in nail salons, as well as hair styling products that can cause lung damage and injury over time.

Housekeeping and janitorial services

Aerosol cleaning chemicals and dust are both common culprits which put professional cleaners at risk.

Related: Confined space safety tips for employees


How to prevent workplace respiratory hazards 

The best way to prevent workplace respiratory hazards  is to remove them altogether. Examples could include alternatives to aerosol based cleaners, switching up work procedures to decrease the amount of airborne contaminates and analyze work environments for proper ventilation.

If it’s impossible to eliminate the hazard, then ensure your employees have adequate protection. Provide education regarding respiratory hazards in the workplace and provide appropriate masks and other personal protective equipment.

It is also a good idea to periodically hire an occupational health expert to review your facilities to spot hazards that may have previously been overlooked and provide recommendations on how to eliminate the risks.

All employees deserve to be able to breathe easily and safely on the job. For more information regarding respiratory hazards in the workplace, check out the following links.

Agents, take a look at our Workers’ Compensation Program to add to your portfolio of insurance solutions.


OHS Online: Seven Respiratory Hazards Every Safety Manager Should Understand
John Hopkins Medicine: Occupational Lung Diseases
WebMD: Risky Jobs for your Lungs
CBS News: 10 Worst Jobs for your Lungs
WebMD: Household Hazards for People with COPD

This article originally published on our Tribal blog. It has been updated and modified to better fit the needs of Arrowhead producers and their clients.