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The Impact of Respiratory Conditions on Work: Coping Strategies for COPD

May 8, 2024

The Impact of Respiratory Conditions on Work: Coping Strategies for COPD

In the UK, more than 100,000 people die from a lung conditions every year. There are several conditions that affect the lungs including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and infections that can be caused by lifestyle factors and workplace exposure such as dust particles, chemicals, fumes and gases.

Understanding Your Lungs

The lungs play a vital role in the body's respiratory system, facilitating the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. As air is inhaled, oxygen is absorbed into the bloodstream while carbon dioxide is exhaled.

The breathing process begins with the upper airway, encompassing the throat and the trachea (windpipe), which support the entry of air into the lungs. From there, the trachea branches into smaller airways, extending deeper into the lungs.

In addition to their respiratory function, the lungs serve as a protective barrier against harmful organisms and foreign bodies boosting the body's immune response.

Certain occupational environments pose an increased risk of respiratory conditions due to exposure to hazardous substances. These industries include:

  • Welding
  • Stone and quarry work
  • Construction
  • Baking
  • Transportation

Employees in these sectors are more prone to develop respiratory problems and illnesses such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. 

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a common chronic condition of breathing difficulties. It affects 200 million people globally and 1.2 million people in the UK. COPD is most commonly caused by tobacco smoke, however work exposure to dust, fumes, gases and vapors increase the risk of COPD. 

COPD symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath during daily tasks such as walking or housework
  • Chronic cough
  • Wheezing
  • Excess mucus or phlegm production
  • Symptoms may worsen with infection

Understanding the Impact

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) estimate that there are 12, 000 lung diseases death annualy that are associated with occupational exposure. In addition, 18, 000 new cases of self-reported lung problems are caused or made worse by work annually. 

COPD  symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and fatigue can make even simple tasks challenging, let alone the demands of a job. According to the Asthma and Lung Organisation, individuals with COPD are more likely to miss work due to hospital appointments, emergencies and when their symptoms worsen. Moreover, the physical and emotional toll of managing COPD can increase stress and anxiety in the workplace, leading to further complications.

Coping Strategies for Individuals

  • Maintain your self-management plan: Ensure a readily accessible copy of your self-management or action plan is available at your workplace, either in print or on your phone. This enables your colleagues to assist you promptly in case of symptoms or flare-ups.
  • Get to know the first aiders at your workplace: Knowing who the first aid responders are in your workplace can provide a sense of security, as you'll know where to turn for immediate assistance if needed.
  • Adhere to medication regimen: Consistently follow your prescribed medication routine. Keep essential medications such as inhalers with you during work hours to manage symptoms effectively.
  • Communicate with colleagues: Openly discuss your condition and any triggers with your coworkers. This ensures they are aware of how to support you if your symptoms worsen and help minimising exposure to potential triggers, fostering a safer and more understanding work environment.

Strategies for Employers

  • Provide appropriate protective equipment to employees potentially exposed to hazardous substances, emphasising proper usage and regular fit assessments.
  • Eliminate accessibility barriers, such as providing ground-floor workspace options to avoid stair climbing for employees with respiratory conditions.
  • Equip employees with tools and resources tailored to enhance comfort and efficiency in their roles.
  • Collaborate with occupational healthcare professionals to foster a culture of workplace safety and wellness.
  • Offer flexible scheduling to accommodate employees' medical appointments.

Learn more about our occupational health services.