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Respiratory disease

What causes respiratory disease in construction?

Work-related respiratory disease covers a range of illnesses that are caused or made worse by breathing in hazardous substances that damage the lungs. In the construction industry the most prevalent of these diseases are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma and silicosis.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

COPD is characterised by airflow obstruction that is not fully reversible. The condition is usually progressive and is associated with inflammatory responses of the lungs to hazardous substances. Symptoms include a chronic cough, sputum production, and shortness of breath. COPD often develops slowly and becomes symptomatic in midlife.

The main cause of COPD is cigarette smoking, but exposure to harmful dust, fume and gases at work can also contribute to the development of the disease. Construction workers have higher levels of this disease than the general population.

Occupational asthma

Occupational asthma is an allergic reaction that occurs in some people when they are exposed to substances in the workplace, eg wood dust. These substances are called ‘respiratory sensitisers', or asthmagens. They can cause a change in people's airways, known as the ‘hypersensitive state'. Not everyone who becomes sensitised goes on to develop asthma, but once the lungs become hypersensitive, further exposure to the substance, even at quite low levels, may trigger an attack.

Work-related asthma can be triggered by exposure to substances in the workplace. Individuals with asthma are more likely to be sensitive to these respiratory sensitisers.


Silicosis is an irreversible lung disease that can take years to develop. Fine particles of respirable crystalline silica (RCS) cause damage and inflammation in the lungs. Over time, this leads to the formation of scar tissue (fibrosis), which shows up on chest X-rays. The main symptoms are breathing difficulties and a chronic cough which may not appear before retirement. Silicosis can be extremely disabling and lead to early death.

Who is affected?

In construction, a broad range of tasks and activities, eg painting or carpentry, can create a risk of exposure to the main causes of respiratory disease.

Addressing and controlling risks from respiratory disease - the five stages

Updated 2010-01-04