Occupational disease

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 23, 2016
StartDiseasesOccupational disease

Occupational diseases are conditions caused by the work a person does or the conditions in which they do that work. A great number and variety of these conditions are currently recognized and can include conditions ranging from various types of cancer, to hearing impairment from noisy environments, to musculoskeletal disorders.


Definition & Facts

Occupational diseases are defined as any chronic medical condition that is the result of a person's work and/or occupational activities. These arise from the specific conditions to which a person is exposed during the course of their work.

The most common of these diseases are those related to the lungs and skin. Examples of these include mesothelioma, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) for the lungs and eczema, urticaria, skin cancer, and contact dermatitis for the skin.

Close to 2.9 million workplace injuries and illnesses were reported by private sector employers in 2015, many of which were related to occupational diseases. Likewise, the public sector reported 752,600 injuries and illnesses in that year.

The numbers are trending downward at this time; however, occupational disease remains a serious concern, especially in some industries where occupational health and safety are more difficult to maintain.

Symptoms & Complaints

Occupational diseases vary widely, and as such, so do the symptoms experienced by those who have contracted any of these conditions.

For occupational lung diseases, the most common complaints are persistent or acute coughing along with difficulty breathing. For some conditions, coughing up blood is also a possible symptom.

For occupational skin disease, some common complaints include itching, dry skin, rashes, and inflammation. The development of skin lesions is also possible in some cases. Some types of cancer caused by occupational conditions may not have early symptoms and are only discovered through routine medical examination.

For occupational diseases caused by repetitive motion or stress, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, symptoms include joint pain, joint stiffness, numbness, and weakness in the affected area of the body, such as the wrist or hand. These are often easier to identify and easier to associate with a direct cause, e.g. using a computer mouse.


The causes of occupational disease are as varied as the diseases themselves. Many are associated with exposure to chemicals or conditions that harm the human body; for example, asbestos is known to cause mesothelioma. Other well-known types and causes of occupational lung diseases include the following:

Occupational skin diseases are considered to be among the most common occupational diseases in many countries. Causes are varied. The condition urticaria, also known as hives, for instance, is associated with wearing gloves in healthcare settings.

Eczema has less direct causes, but is often associated with constant or repeated exposure to various skin irritants, including chemical agents and allergens. Skin cancer is often caused by unsafe exposure to sunlight for long periods of time without appropriate protection

Musculoskeletal disorders arise from repetitive stress, overuse, and overexertion. These can be found in office occupations as well as industrial and manufacturing jobs. Various forms of bursitis, a type of inflammation that most frequently affects the knee, elbow, or shoulder, are associated with prolonged pressure on these joints. This can arise in numerous occupational settings, including those in which mechanics or carpenters work.

Diagnosis & Tests

The methods used to diagnose these conditions are varied in terms of their complexity, ranging from a simple physical examination by a physician for contact dermatitis to a biopsy that tests for cancerous cells. Some occupational diseases may require significant testing to identify and diagnose, including some forms of cancer. It may be necessary to identify the workplace allergens responsible for skin conditions in order to render a diagnosis.

Some conditions, like silicosis or byssinosis, which have obvious causes, are more easily diagnosed. These tend to be the exception rather than the rule for occupational diseases. Patients will often be referred to specialists to assist with both proper diagnosis and treatment.

Treatment & Therapy

Treatment for many occupational illnesses has come a long way in recent years. The outlook for many workers who have received a cancer diagnosis, for instance, is more positive, especially for those diagnosed early. Five-year survival rates for many cancers are on the rise. Typical treatments may include chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, and/or surgery. Some cancers associated with occupational hazards, particularly mesothelioma, continue to have poor outlooks with a five-year survival rate of just 7.5%.

Skin conditions are often treated with topical medications and moisturizers, along with anti-inflammatories, antihistamines, and corticosteroids in some cases. Specialized dermatological medications may be prescribed for the treatment of eczema, depending on its cause and severity.

Workers who have musculoskeletal disorders may be referred to physical therapy or occupational therapy to assist with their recovery. These therapies may be especially recommended for those who have had surgeries such as a knee replacement or hip replacement or surgery to help correct carpal tunnel syndrome. These therapies focus on regaining strength, range of motion, and ability to accomplish specific tasks and may last anywhere from four to six weeks to as long as a year or more. 

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Many occupational diseases can be prevented. Safety equipment and protocols exist to help protect workers from exposure to toxins like asbestos and coal dust, although these can still fail to prevent disease, even with near-perfect use.

Other ways to prevent disease include using sunscreen to prevent skin cancer, wearing ear protection to prevent hearing loss, taking breaks to reduce repetitive stress, and finding ways to avoid exposure to known toxins and irritants in the workplace environment.

In many cases, early detection is crucial, so workers should also make a point of having routine physical exams. This is especially important for those who work in hazardous environments or occupations with known risk factors for occupational diseases.