What is an occupational disease? What are some typical examples?

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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Workers can suffer two types of health-related concerns.  The first type, occupational injuries, occurs while a job is in progress; for example, a carpenter who is hurt by a spinning table saw. The second type, occupational diseases, are ones that are caused by exposure to different things within the workspace, often inhalants such as dangerous gases, or absorption of toxic chemicals through the skin.

As of February, 2014, approximately 145 million Americans were working either full or part-time, out of a population of approximately 319 million.  Women make up almost 47 percent of the workforce.

How a person acquires an occupational disease varies in both the method and the time frame.  Some illness can take many years to develop, sometimes decades, in the years between exposure and onset of symptoms.  Cancers from chemical exposure are an example of a long-term occupational disease.  However, there can be immediate occupational diseases; inhaling of chlorine or ammonia gases are an example. Some occupational diseases might take anywhere from six to twelve hours for symptoms to be felt: fumes from aerosolized zinc is an example of this relatively brief delay.  Lead poisoning, however, might take weeks or months before the worker becomes symptomatic. Pregnant women may also experience occupational disease; even if they do not feel ill themselves, their fetuses can suffer damage.

There are many deaths that occur every year that are caused by occupational illness, but a firm number is difficult to determine due to the varying delays of onset.  Occupational injuries are easier to pinpoint:  in 2012, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration reported that three million injuries had occurred on the job. The majority of these injuries, some forty percent, involve transportation; men account for most of these types of injuries or deaths.  A significant number, fourteen percent, are homicides; most of these injuries are deaths happen to women.  Persons aged sixty-five or older experience the greatest number of fatalities.  Also, small workplaces, those with less than ten employees, have high fatality rates due to occupational injury. Large companies are more likely to conduct occupational health and safety programs as well as conducting more frequent workplace assessments.  These factors contribute to the reduce rates of occupational injuries in large companies.

It is not difficult to understand why occupational illnesses are harder to track than occupational injuries.  There are just a few types of occupational illnesses that are relatively essay to account for; most of these illnesses are pneumononioses, that is, diseases that infect the lungs, such as breathing in asbestos and siliceous.  Many other types of chemical exposures, those that are absorbed through the skin and infect the bloodstream, are harder to pinpoint. It is likely that many are never positively linked to workplace exposure, although that is probably the case in many eventual fatalities. 

Not all occupational illness are fatal, of course.  Many non-fatal illness occur every year, and about sixty percent happen in the manufacturing industry; some fifty cases per ten thousand full-time workers are reported every year. How many more actually occur is not known; some cases are not recognized as being workplace related and record keeping is not as efficient as it should be. Another important reason is that doctors are not properly trained to care for or recognize occupational diseases; very few doctors specialize in this field.  Of the approximately 800,000 doctors in the United States, just 10,000 are trained in occupational medicine; even fewer have specialized training leading to certification in this field.  The majority of occupational diseases are treated by primary care doctors who have not had adequate training. 

Common non-fatal occupational diseases typically come from repeated trauma, such as carpal tunnel syndrome from repeated typing, tendonitis from long-term standing, or noise-induced hearing loss from noisy factories or other loud environments. Combined, these three types of diseases account for about sixty percent of complaints. Carpal tunnel alone causes more the 30,000 days of missed work each year.  Workers suffering carpal tunnel typically are out of work for twenty-five days, sometimes longer. Skin problems can lead to missed work as well; dermatitis causes about 6,500 missed days per year.

In an effort to combat and recognized both occupational injuries and occupational diseased, the United States has established two government agencies:  the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  Both were established in 1970 by President Richard M. Nixon. NIOSH’s role is to research what causes illness and injury, then research and recommend ways to improve worker safety. OSHA enforces workplace regulation. Despite OSHAs rules, enforcing them can be difficult. There simply are not enough inspectors to provide sufficient enforcement.  It is estimated that it would take two decades to evaluate all workplaces a single time, given the number of OSHA inspectors currently employed. OSHA, therefore, focuses most of its efforts on fatalities.

SourceEncyclopedia of Public Health, ©2002 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved.

kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An occupation disease is a physical ailment resulting from the routine performance of one's professional responsibilities.  Manufacturing jobs involving repetitive motion and excessive use of a computer keyboard are both common causes of occupational illnesses, although ones more associated with neurological and orthopedic injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.  More serious occupation illness, more appropriately categorized as diseases, involve the ingestion of chemicals or other substances associated with one's line of work.  For example, automotive brake specialists were frequently being diagnosed with asbestos-related respiratory diseases caused by constant inhalation of asbestos dust from brake pad linings.  Another common occupational disease is the series of pulmonary illnesses caused by inhalation of coal dust and other carcinogenic substances by miners.  Workers in manufacturing facilities are prone to illnesses caused by prolonged exposure to the chemicals used in the manufacturing process.  Lead poisoning has affected employees responsible for working with that particular substance, and workers at nuclear power plants, and at nuclear weapons manufacturing facilities in the past were occasionally subjected to unhealthy doses of radiation that resulted in cancers.  All of these are types of occupational diseases, and most can prove fatal.  

CaitlynnReeves | Student

An occupational disease is a condition caused by an individual's work environment. Sometimes they have fast onsets but generally they take time to develope. 

Coal and iron workers commonly have black lung. Soldiers during the Vietnam war were exposed to agent orange and often got Leukemia later in life. High stress and suicide rates may also be considered occupational diseases even though they are not physical. 

This is not to be confused with occupational hazards which deal more with injury than disease. 

Chantelm | Student

n. A disease, such as byssinosis or black lung, resulting from the conditions of a person's work, trade, or occupation.

Yojana_Thapa | Student

Occupational disease is disease caused by the work or working conditions.

Examples of occupational diseases:

  • Tennis elbow
  • Allergy
  • Hearing loss
  • Asthma