About COPD


Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a major cause of disability and death. It is the 4th leading cause of death throughout the world.


COPD is a long-term illness that makes breathing difficult.

The lungs and breathing tubes are damaged making it difficult to get air in and out. Walking up a hill, playing football or even playing with your grandchildren can become difficult because of shortness of breath.

Other common symptoms include;

  • a persistent chesty cough and phlegm
  • wheeze
  • more frequent and troublesome chest infections

COPD is a slow developing condition, the symptoms tend only to start becoming a problem in mid-life, usually in the late forties onwards.

Because COPD creeps up slowly, many people do not realise they have the disease. They think their symptoms are simply due to lack of fitness or getting older. This means that often the disease does not get diagnosed in the early stages.

The sooner you realise you have lung problems, the quicker you can try to stop smoking and reduce harmful exposures to dusts, fumes and gases. Medical treatments may also help.


The main cause of COPD is cigarette smoking. But exposure to dusts in the workplace can also cause COPD, even in people who don't smoke.

Do you know that thousands of British coalminers recently received compensation for COPD?

But COPD is not just a problem for coalminers, breathing in too much fume and/or dusts in the workplace could put you at risk of developing COPD.

Occupations where COPD is most common and substances that can cause COPD

The risk of developing COPD is greatly increased if you breathe in dusts/fumes in the workplace and you smoke.

Work related COPD

There is increasing research evidence that COPD can be caused or made worse by dusts, fumes and irritating gases at work.

Work related COPD is a priority because of the human costs in terms of suffering, its effects on the quality of life and the financial costs due to working days lost and medical treatment.

Research findings suggest that for Great Britain: -

  • Around 15% of COPD may be caused or made worse by work
  • 4000 COPD deaths every year may be related to work exposures
  • 40% of COPD patients are below retirement age
  • A quarter of those below retirement age are unable to work at all
  • COPD statistics

Can COPD be cured?

Once COPD develops the damage to the lungs cannot be reversed. However you can help stop it getting worse by reducing exposure to the dust, fume and irritating gases at work that are causing the problem, and if you do smoke, by stopping.

You should consult your doctor for further medical information and advice on treatments.

The Top tips page gives advice on how you and your employer can make your workplace safer.

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Updated 2023-11-21