Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a serious lung disease responsible for thousands of deaths each year. COPD causes respiratory issues because it damages the lungs and breathing tubes, making it difficult to breathe in and out.

What are the causes of COPD?

The most common cause of COPD is smoking. However, long-term exposure to hazardous fumes, chemicals and dust in the workplace can also cause COPD. Research suggests occupational exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace are responsible for an estimated 4,000 COPD deaths each year.

What are the different types of COPD?

There are two main types of COPD: chronic bronchitis, which is a long-term inflammation of the airways, and emphysema, which develops when the delicate air sacs in your lungs are damaged. Both cause significant breathing difficulty.

COPD can also cause refractory asthma, which is a severe type of asthma that doesn’t react to usual asthma medications. For example, an inhaler may help open the airways during an asthma attack, but wouldn’t be effective in patients with refractory asthma.

What are the symptoms of COPD?

COPD can take many years to develop. Symptoms may only become a problem in mid-life or after long-term exposure. If you have breathing problems, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible to avoid your lungs becoming significantly damaged. While COPD is incurable, there is treatment available to ease the symptoms and prevent further damage, such as inhalers and medication.

People who are suffering from COPD will experience breathing problems, such as:

  • Increased shortness of breath
  • Persistent coughing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Wheezing

Who is at risk of COPD?

While COPD is most common among smokers, it can also affect workers who are exposed to harmful fumes, chemicals and dust at work. Workers who are at high risk of developing COPD include:

  • Seafarers
  • Coal miners
  • Industrial cleaners
  • Construction workers
  • Agricultural workers

What protections exist for workers at risk of COPD?

To help control the exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace, employers should protect their workers by performing a risk assessment. To identify if workers are at risk and what procedures need to be put in place to reduce the risk of exposure so far as reasonably practicable. Workers should also be given adequate health and safety training to make sure they understand the risks involved with their work, and the actions they should take to protect them and their fellow employees.

For more information about staying safe at work and making sure your employer is complying to COSHH regulations, visit our Under the COSHH campaign page.