What are occupational respiratory diseases?

Reading Time: 5 minutes
by Joy Monaghan
Published 28/09/2022

Occupational respiratory illnesses are those diseases affecting the lungs and caused by or made worse by work. There are several serious lung diseases that can be caused by exposure to harmful agents in the workplace. This includes life-limiting and life-threatening conditions such as cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The Health and Safety Executive’s 2021 report revealed occupational lung disease contributes to an estimated 12,000 deaths each year, and 400,000 working days lost in Great Britain. Often these types of disease take a long time to develop following exposure to the agent that caused them, meaning the reported deaths are a result of historical working conditions. However, some illnesses such as occupational asthma and legionella infections can develop shortly after exposure. 

Which respiratory illnesses are caused from workplace hazards?

Respiratory illnesses can occur in most industry sectors and are caused by a wide range of agents, from biological organisms through to dusts, fumes, and vapours. Asbestos and respirable crystalline silica (RCS) are remarkably consistent contributors to the development of lung diseases. Workplace respiratory hazards contribute to a range of conditions, including:

  • Respiratory cancers, including lung cancer and mesothelioma
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Silicosis, asbestosis, and other forms of pneumoconiosis
  • Legionella, tuberculosis, and other infections
  • Occupational asthma
  • Diffuse pleural thickening and pleural plaques
  • Allergic alveolitis and byssinosis

Common symptoms of occupational lung diseases

The two most common symptoms of occupational lung diseases are difficulty in breathing, and coughing. Health surveillance should be considered for workers who are involved in high-risk occupations, consisting of respiratory questionnaires, lung function testing (spirometry), and where necessary, chest x-rays.

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Health and Safety Executive (2021). Occupational Lung Disease statistics in Great Britain, 2021. Accessed at:

Health and Safety Executive (2016). Health surveillance for those exposed to respirable crystalline silica (RCS). Guidance for occupational health professionals. Accessed at: