Respiratory And Lung Diseases

The term Respiratory Disease refers to a range of illnesses that are either caused or exacerbated by exposure to certain gases, fumes and dusts which can damage the lungs and respiratory system.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that there are around 12,000 deaths each year from lung diseases which can be linked to past exposures at work.  There are also around 35,000 workers with respiratory conditions that they believe have been caused or made worse by their work.

The most common work related respiratory diseases are:

Lung cancer

Lung cancer can be caused by exposure to a wide range of hazardous substances including asbestos, silica, diesel engine exhaust emissions and mineral oils.


Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the lung which is caused by exposure to asbestos.

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease):

COPD is a serious long-term lung disease in which the flow of air into and out of the lungs is reduced due to inflammation and tissue damage in the lungs.


Pneumoconiosis is a long-term lung disease caused by inhalation of certain types of mineral dust such as coal dust which causes pneumoconiosis, asbestos fibres which causes asbestosis and silica dust which causes silicosis. 

Occupational Asthma

Occupational asthma is caused by exposure to certain to certain gases, fumes and dusts in the work place which damage the lungs and respiratory system.

There are hundreds of substances found in the workplace, which can cause respiratory problems.

Workers who come into contact with the following substances may be at a high risk of developing respiratory diseases:

  • Asbestos
  • Silica
  • Diesel engine exhaust fumes
  • Coal dust
  • Cadmium
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – produced by coal, oil and gas
  • Isocyanates – found in spray paints, glues and foam moulding
  • Wood dust
  • Flour and grain dust
  • Welding fumes and dust
  • Dust from latex rubber
  • Dust from insects and animals

Any employee working in an environment where hazardous substances are present may be at risk of developing a respiratory disease.  The HSE has however identified a number of occupations where respiratory disease is more prevalent. These include:

  • Construction workers
  • Foundry workers
  • Welders
  • Quarry & stone workers
  • Bakery Workers
  • Vehicle Paint Sprayers
  • Agricultural workers

The symptoms of respiratory illness will vary depending on the nature and severity of the disease. The most common symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Persistent Cough
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness of chest
  • Chronic mucus production
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest pain

In the case of diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, COPD and pneumoconiosis, the symptoms typically develop many years after the initial exposure.  In the case of occupational asthma, however, the symptoms will occur at the time of exposure.

If you are think you may be suffering from a respiratory disease, you should seek medical advice at the earliest opportunity. If you are still working, you should also report your symptoms to your employer.

If you believe your symptoms have been caused by exposure to harmful substances at work, you may be entitled to compensation, even if you have not been diagnosed with a specific condition. In some cases, you may also be entitled to other financial assistance or benefits such as Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit or Disability Living Allowance.