Poor air quality in the workplace amounts to a hidden danger if it contains substances that can cause lung and other health complications in workers.
Joel Blanchard, M.D., a Sanford Health occupational medicine physician, outlines problems that can result from bad air quality, recommends some precautionary measures and explains respiratory standards for companies from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Is air quality important?
The answer to that question is yes, very important. Whether you’re walking down the street or working in an oil field, you can be affected by the air you’re breathing.
This is because lungs are good at absorbing substances into the body, and any toxin or dangerous particles in the air absorbed into the lungs can affect the whole body. Toxins and dangerous substances can settle into the lungs and cause structural damage.
Asbestos exposure is the number one cause for mesothelioma cancer. Employees exposed to asbestos need to use special protective equipment to keep them from inhaling asbestos fibers. They also need to be monitored to make sure that there is no effect on the lungs long-term.
Silica exposure can cause silicosis, an inflammatory process in your lungs that causes your lungs to get scarred up. There are three types of silica diseases: acute, chronic and accelerated.
Each disease is different based on the amount of silica that a worker is exposed to and the conditions that they are in. Silica can affect the kidneys and immune system, and can make immune-related diseases worse.
Lead poisoning is when someone has a buildup of lead in the body from ingesting or inhaling lead.
There are many more types of dangerous irritants that employees are exposed to like methylene chloride, cadmium, beryllium and other substances you can breathe in and need protection from.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets standards that companies need to comply with if their workers are exposed to any risky substances. First the company needs to measure to see if there is enough of the substance in the air that the employees breathe to see if they meet the action level. If they meet the action level they have to do several things:
- Avoid using the substance. If a company can operate without the substance, it shouldn’t be used.
- If the company can’t avoid using the substance, it should make engineering changes to the site, like making airflow better, taking the work outside, or limiting the time each employee spends in the area.
- If a company can’t do either of those options, its employees must wear respirators.
An air respirator can be as simple as a mask or it can be a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), which looks like a scuba diving mask. There are many different kinds of masks, ranging from half masks to full face masks to SCBAs that depend on many different factors. Respirators are chosen based on how high the level of toxin is, what the toxin is, what the employee is doing and where they are working.
Warn your employees
The Hazard Act says that any time you have a hazardous substance on a work site, whether it’s toxic, you need to warn your employees about possible risks. It’s also the employer’s job to make sure that its employees’ respirators fit properly and that they know how to use and wear them.
Companies need to be aware of all the standards that OSHA sets, so they don’t get in trouble for not protecting their workers appropriately.
Do natural disasters affect air quality?
Wildfires can negatively affect the air quality because so many different things are getting thrown into the air, in addition to all of the smoke. Even if the wildfire isn’t happening in your state, the wind can blow it to your area.
People who have asthma, allergies, emphysema or chronic bronchitis need to be aware of the air quality during these natural disasters. Dr. Blanchard recommends staying inside an air conditioned building and limiting time spent outside if you have any of those conditions.
Sanford Health OccMed
The Sanford Occupational Medicine Respiratory Protection Program helps companies meet OSHA regulations through respiratory clearance, respirator fit testing, asbestos surveillance and air quality testing. Air that’s contaminated or lacks oxygen can harm employees. But if companies follow the guidelines set by OSHA, their employees can avoid serious medical conditions.
More news about air quality:
- Chronic bronchitis: What you need to know
- Diagnosed with lung cancer: Now what?
- Lung cancer screenings now available to help catch it early