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Protecting employees from inhalation exposures

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Chubb HealthBeat

Chubb’s Claims department includes a team of dedicated registered nurse professionals with extensive experience helping businesses and organizations address health and safety issues. Our nursing team also supports employees as they recover from injury and illness — and return to work. In the spirit of promoting safe and healthy workplaces, our medical specialists developed this edition of Chubb HealthBeat to help your business and employees understand and prevent hazardous inhalation exposures.


A dangerous but preventable workplace risk

Harmful substances released into the air at the workplace can sicken employees, cause permanent organ damage, and even lead to death. While short, one-time exposures to a harmful airborne substance can cause illness or death, most work-related diseases are the result of ongoing, long-term exposure to toxic inhalants. Employees may not show symptoms of occupational lung diseases until after years of exposure to harmful substances.1

The potential for this occupational health risk can be found across many industries, though some sectors have higher risks because of the nature of their operations. Fortunately, preventive measures can help protect employees from inhalation exposures. Working together, employers and employees can identify risks, take remedial actions, and maintain a safe workplace.


Occupations and work settings prone to inhalation risks

There are a wide range of sectors and work settings associated with inhalation hazards. These include mining, manufacturing, construction, transportation, agricultural work, and firefighting.2

Non-industrial workplaces such as healthcare facilities, office buildings, and schools can also pose inhalation risks because of mold, dust, and cleaning agents. The presence of these hazards is the likely cause of work-related asthma, which is most common in non-industrial settings.3


Hazardous workplace inhalants and associated illnesses

A wide range of airborne substances in the workplace can cause illnesses, including:

  • Chemical fumes, vapors, and gases — Exposure to hazardous airborne chemicals such as pesticides, vaporized metal, and fuel, solvent, plastic, and cleaning fumes can cause illness. Gases such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, sodium hydroxide, and many others are also harmful.
  • Dust — Fine particles of various materials such as silica, asbestos, wood and grain dust, fiberglass, and other substances can cause illness.
  • Fungus, molds, and allergens — Exposure to certain types of organic substances can cause respiratory and other illnesses.

Occupational exposures to these inhalants can result in a range of adverse effects from minor, temporary irritations to fatal disorders. Serious illnesses arising from occupational inhalation exposures include: 

  • Occupational asthma — This is the most common occupational respiratory illness. It can be caused by exposure to a range of irritants, including dust, cleaning products, allergens, and mold.4
  • Interstitial or fibrotic lung diseases — These diseases, which can take years to develop, include silicosis, asbestosis, and coal workers’ pneumoconiosis.5 They are caused by inhaling certain types of dust, such as silica and asbestos. Characterized by lung inflammation or scarring, these diseases can impair lungs, cause disability, and lead to death.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — While cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD, this illness can be caused or worsened by workplace exposure to mineral dust, organic dust, metal fumes, diesel exhaust, and other airborne chemicals.6
  • Lung cancer — Like COPD, lung cancer is primarily caused by cigarette smoking, but it can also arise from occupational exposure to harmful dust and fumes.7
  • Hypersensitivity pneumonitis — People with this immune system disorder experience lung inflammation when they inhale certain substances that can be found in the workplace, including molds, compost, bird proteins, certain chemicals, and other substances.8

The above list is not exhaustive. Many of these lung diseases have similar symptoms, including frequent coughing, shortness of breath, mucus or phlegm production, wheezing, and chest pains.9


It is possible for employees to fall ill from a work-related disease that initially developed at another workplace or through another occupation. For example, veterans may develop illnesses from chemical and burn pit exposures from overseas duty.10

While breathing harmful airborne substances is primarily associated with lung diseases, exposure to some inhalants can have other severe effects, including cardiovascular, liver, and brain damage.


Five key ways to prevent inhalation exposure

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to maintain safe workplaces, including protecting employees against the health effects of exposure to respiratory hazards.11 Employers should limit their employees’ exposures to hazardous inhalants, following exposure limits set by regulatory agencies.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends the following actions in order of effectiveness to control hazardous exposures, including exposure to harmful airborne substances.12


  • Elimination — Discontinue the use of a substance that results in inhalation exposures.
  • Substitution — Substitute a safer chemical or material for the inhalation hazard.
  • Engineering Controls — Implement controls that mitigate risks, such as improving ventilation.
  • Administrative Controls — Establish work practices that limit exposures to hazardous inhalants.
  • Personal Protective Equipment — Provide high-quality respirators to reduce inhalation exposures.



American Lung Association – Occupational Lung Diseases

American Thoracic Society – Work-Related Lung Diseases

Johns Hopkins Medicine – Occupational Lung Diseases


This document is advisory in nature and is offered as a resource to be used together with your professional insurance advisors in maintaining a loss prevention program. It is an overview only, and is not intended as a substitute for consultation with your insurance broker, or for legal, engineering or other professional advice.

Chubb is the marketing name used to refer to subsidiaries of Chubb Limited providing insurance and related services. For a list of these subsidiaries, please visit our website at Insurance provided by ACE American Insurance Company and its U.S. based Chubb underwriting company affiliates. All products may not be available in all states. This communication contains product summaries only. Coverage is subject to the language of the policies as actually issued. Surplus lines insurance sold only through licensed surplus lines producers. Chubb, 202 Hall's Mill Road, Whitehouse Station, NJ 08889-1600.


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