Can Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Awareness Month Protect Workers?

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a serious lung condition that is often associated with long-term smoking. However, there are a range of other factors that can increase the risk of COPD, including dust, chemical fumes, and other pollutants in the air that can be easily inhaled. Unfortunately, many workers in the United States are exposed to those hazardous materials every day, which can increase their risk of developing COPD. November is COPD Awareness Month, which provides employers and workers with the opportunity to learn more about this serious lung disease, the common symptoms, steps to take to avoid COPD, and the treatment options for workers who are diagnosed with the disease. If an employee develops COPD after being exposed to hazardous dust, fumes, or other pollutants in the workplace, he or she may be eligible for Workers’ Compensation benefits.

How Do I Know If I Have COPD?

Approximately 16 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with COPD, and millions more are suffering from the symptoms associated with the disease but have not been diagnosed and are not getting the necessary treatment. Doctors can easily diagnose COPD by using a simple breathing test called spirometry, which measures how much air the patient can breathe in, and how much air the patient can forcefully exhale back out. If a worker is experiencing the following symptoms, he or she should consider getting tested for COPD:

  • Difficulty breathing, particularly during physical activities
  • Chronic cough that produces clear, white, or yellow mucus
  • Wheezing
  • Lack of energy
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Swelling in the ankles, feet, or legs
  • Weight loss

What Workers are at the Greatest Risk for Developing COPD?

Workers who are exposed to high levels of dust, fibers, and harmful chemicals that can be easily inhaled are at an increased risk for developing COPD. The following occupations are associated with the highest risk of COPD and other serious lung diseases:

  • Mining and construction. Coal miners, construction workers, and individuals who work in tunnels, granite quarries, and concrete and brick manufacturing are exposed to harmful silica, coal, and mineral dust.
  • Food processing. These workers are exposed to high levels of grain and flour dust.
  • Textile manufacturing. Textile dust can be very irritating to the lungs when inhaled.
  • Crop farmers and animal farmers are exposed to high levels of agricultural dust.
  • People who work in plastics, rubber, textile, paper, and leather manufacturing are exposed to a range of toxic chemicals that can damage the lungs when inhaled.
  • Welders are exposed to dangerous levels of cadmium dust and fumes, which can increase the risk of COPD when inhaled.

How can I Reduce the Risk of Work-Related COPD?

Even employees who work in environments where they are exposed to a range of lung irritants can take proactive steps to protect themselves and reduce the risk of exposure. The following strategies can help keep workers safe:

  • Do not smoke. Workers who smoke and who are also exposed to lung irritants in the workplace are twice as likely to develop chronic lung problems, including COPD, compared with workers who do not smoke. Workers who do not smoke should also avoid secondhand smoke, as this can also increase the risk of developing COPD.
  • Develop work habits that limit dust exposure. According to a study of employees at a coal plant, there are effective strategies that can significantly reduce dust exposure, including allowing dust to settle before handling bags filled with coal, using high-quality bags for transporting materials, and avoiding working around open containers.
  • Avoid sweeping. Vacuuming or mopping an area creates less airborne dust compared with sweeping. If sweeping is the only option, it should be done at a time when there are fewer workers in the vicinity.
  • Use industrial vacuums. For certain tasks, it is highly recommended that workers use an industrial vacuum. For example, concrete workers should use them when grinding concrete or mortar to reduce the amount of dust that they could inhale. These high-power vacuums are more effective at collecting dust than regular vacuums.
  • Remove contaminated clothing. Workers may not realize that dust can settle into the fibers of certain types of fabric. Workers are urged to wear coats that are made of synthetic fabrics rather than cotton or wool, which can absorb dust. Handheld vacuums can be used to remove some dust that has settled onto clothing. In addition, workers should remove clothing that may have been exposed to dust or other hazardous material and ensure that the clothing is cleaned regularly.
  • Wear a mask. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), workers should wear a P-, N-, or R-95 respirator mask when working in conditions that have high dust levels. Employers must also ensure that the work environment is properly ventilated.
  • Undergo annual breathing tests. Workers should have a spirometry test performed each year. If the employer does not offer this test, it can be done at the employee’s primary care doctor’s office. This test will determine whether the worker’s lungs are functioning properly, or if there are signs of COPD or other serious lung conditions.

What are the Treatment Options for COPD?

Although COPD is a chronic illness that gets worse over time, it is treatable. Whether the worker developed COPD from being exposed to dust and other irritants at work, or from smoking, there are treatments available that can improve his or her quality of life and reduce the risk of developing other conditions that are associated with COPD, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis:

  • Common symptoms of COPD, such as coughing or wheezing, can be treated with a range of prescription medications, including bronchodilators, inhaled or oral steroids, and antibiotics.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation. This is a treatment program that teaches patients how to manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life. It may include strategies for conserving energy, breathing better, or making healthier choices with food and exercise.
  • Avoiding lung infections. Workers can do this by getting regular flu and pneumonia vaccinations and making smart choices when it comes to diet and lifestyle. Lung infections can be quite serious if workers already have COPD.
  • Supplemental oxygen. Portable oxygen tanks can provide additional oxygen if the worker’s blood oxygen levels are too low.

How can I Participate in COPD Awareness Month?

There are a wide range of things that workers and employers can do to observe COPD Awareness Month, including participating in online forums, attending health fairs, and researching different community resources. The following are examples of other ways to participate and raise awareness of COPD:

  • Participate in a Twitter chat. Workers can find a Twitter chat that discusses COPD-related topics. The COPD Foundation monitors the events that take place throughout COPD Awareness Month. This is a valuable resource for people who want to participate or find out more information about COPD risk factors.
  • Schedule a doctor’s appointment. Workers who are feeling any of the symptoms associated with COPD should commit to making a doctor’s appointment. A simple test will confirm a COPD diagnosis. Even if the worker has COPD, there are a range of treatment options available that can help improve the worker’s quality of life.
  • Wear orange. This is the official color for COPD Awareness Month. This is a simple yet empowering step that workers can take to support the fight against COPD.

Can I Collect Workers’ Compensation Benefits If I Have COPD?

If a worker develops COPD from exposure to harmful materials in the workplace, he or she may be eligible to collect Workers’ Compensation benefits. Because COPD tends to develop slowly, often over a period of years, it can be difficult to prove that it was caused by hazardous work conditions. In addition, the Workers’ Compensation insurance company may try to deny the claim, saying that the COPD was due to smoking, exposure to second-hand smoke, or a previous job that exposed the employee to hazardous work conditions.

However, the employee simply must prove that he or she was exposed to dust, silica, hazardous chemicals, or other irritants while on the job, and that exposure caused him or her to develop COPD. A Workers’ Compensation lawyer can assist the employee with the claims process and ensure that he or she receives the full benefits that he or she deserves, including medical expenses, lost wages, prescription medication, and any other expenses related to the health condition.

Baltimore Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton Secure Maximum Financial Benefits for Victims of Work-Related COPD

If you or a loved one developed COPD after being exposed to harmful dust, fumes, of other toxic chemicals in the workplace, do not hesitate to contact the Baltimore Workers’ Compensation lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton. We will assist you with every step of the claims process and address all your questions and concerns. Our skilled legal team will work tirelessly to ensure that you receive the maximum financial benefits you deserve. To schedule a free, confidential consultation, call us today at 844-556-4LAW (4529) or contact us online. Located in Baltimore, we serve clients throughout Maryland.