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Occupational lung diseases 

Occupational lung diseases are work-related lung conditions of the respiratory system. 

If a person is exposed to a hazard at their workplace, such as dusts, gases, fumes, vapours, mists or microorganisms they are at risk for developing a disease. 

These hazards are airborne contaminants which are potentially harmful substances that are either not naturally in the air or are present in an unnaturally high concentration and to which workers may be exposed in their working environment. 

Occupational lung diseases include a broad range of lung diseases that may be acute, sub-acute or chronic, and either malignant, non-malignant, or infectious in nature.

Types of occupational lung diseases

Pneumoconiosis is lung disease that is caused by breathing in certain types of dust. Commons types are:

  • dust with aluminium (aluminosis)
  • asbestos (asbestosis)
  • dusts or vapours with beryllium (berylliosis, also called chronic beryllium disease)
  • cotton dust (byssinosis)
  • coal dust (coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, sometimes called ‘black lung’)
  • dusts of hard metals such as tungsten, tungsten carbide and cobalt (hard metal pneumoconiosis, also called hard metal lung disease)
  • crystalline silica (silicosis)
  • talc dust (talcosis)

Other lung diseases can be caused by breathing in:

  • asbestos or wood dust (mesothelioma and other cancers)
  • some chemicals or allergens, like pollen (asthma), some gases or fumes (chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD))
  • exposure to the Coxiella burnetii bacteria in contaminated dusts and aerosols (Q fever)

If you think you are at risk of an occupational lung disease

You can complete a checklist designed by Lung Foundation Australia to check how healthy your lungs are.

Read more

Lung Foundation Australia has a fact sheet with information for those living with silicosis.

For further information and support visit Lung Foundation Australia's website

Read more

Industries at risk

Industries where workers may breathe in hazardous substances such as dusts, gases, fumes, vapours, mists or microorganisms have a higher risk of developing an occupational lung disease.

It is important to consider everyone in a workplace who may be impacted by hazards. This could include tradespeople, suppliers, and on-site office staff.

Safe Work Australia initiatives

Occupational lung disease is a priority condition under the Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012–2022.

Safe Work Australia has developed a work plan for occupational lung diseases. This work plan is currently being implemented and aims to:

  • raise awareness of the duties and control measures for eliminating and minimising airborne contaminants that cause occupational lung disease at the workplace
  • inform the development of effective national policy.

Our work plan is based on identified issues and includes key initiatives that supplement the compliance and education activities being undertaken in the states and territories.

Issue Key initiative Objective
The recent increase in diagnoses of silicosis in workers from the engineered stone industry has highlighted a lack of awareness about working safely with silica and silica-containing products. National guide for Working with silica and silica-containing products, with information on working with engineered stone products.
The guide is translated in six languages
Improve the health and safety with more awareness of work health and safety WHS duties and safe work practices to reduce exposure to respirable crystalline silica.
Duty holders, particularly in small to medium enterprise, are often don’t know their WHS duties and how they must protect their workers from dusts that can cause occupational lung diseases. The Clean Air. Clear Lungs. campaign is the key national education and awareness activities, focusing on micro and small to medium enterprises, to raise awareness of occupational lung disease and how it can be prevented. Improve compliance with WHS laws and improve the health and safety of workers, resulting in less workers being diagnosed with occupational lung diseases.
Advances in airborne dust control technologies and work processes may indicate that more innovative measures are available for dust control and mitigation. Monitor the literature to explore:
  • changes and advancements in dust control measures
  • work processes to avoid or mitigate exposure, and
  • the factors that can influence dust control measures and mitigation.
Inform our communication to a industries about how to control dust in the workplace and protect workers from airborne dust exposure.
The extent and incidence of occupational lung disease in Australia over the last decade is unknown.
The extent and incidence of occupational lung disease in Australia over the last decade is unknown.
Investigate data sources. Get a better picture about the number of workers and occupations affected by occupational lung diseases using accurate data and evidence.
Occupational lung diseases in Australia 2006–2019 presents changes in the extent and incidence of occupational lung diseases since the 2006 Occupational respiratory disease in Australia. A current view and estimate of the incidence of occupational lung diseases in Australia.
There is limited national data available to inform national policy work for occupational lung diseases. A regulator data capture project to understand the scope of data WHS regulators collect, record and hold.
We are exploring a range of other national data sets to improve evidence on occupational lung disease.
Access accurate data and evidence related to occupational lung diseases to:
  • support national policy interventions
  • increase our visibility of national issues
  • identify emerging trends.

Occupational lung diseases are a priority condition under the Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012-2022.

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