COVID-19 Outbreak Are the Former Industrial Workers with Respiratory Illness Most Vulnerable?

COVID-19 Outbreak: Are the Former Industrial Workers with Respiratory Illness Most Vulnerable?

The former industrial workers, particularly those with respiratory illnesses or occupational lung diseases are more prone to COVID-19.

Every industrial worker would have been exposed to health risks at worksites from factors such as noise, heat, dust, toxic chemicals, unsafe machinery and psychological stress. All these factors cause occupational diseases that can aggravate other health problems, too! Now that there is a novel coronavirus outbreak all over the world, the former industrial workers—who would generally belong to the older age group—fall into the high-risk category for contracting the virus. Therefore, the former industrial workers, particularly those with respiratory illnesses or occupational lung diseases are more prone to COVID-19.

Occupational lung diseases or work-related lung diseases are caused by prolonged exposure to certain irritants that are inevitably inhaled into the lungs. These lung diseases become worse in certain occupational sites and may also have effects that can last even after the end of the exposure to toxins.

More than 1 in 10 People Worldwide Suffer from Occupational Lung Diseases

The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine published a joint statement from the American Thoracic Society and the European Respiratory Society, which stated that more than 1 in 10 people with non-cancerous lung diseases all around the world may fall sick as a result of breathing toxic gases, dust, fumes and vapors at their workplace. Early screening helps workers stay safe from experiencing dangerous health consequences.

Occupational asthma is the most prevalent among former industrial workers in most industrialized nations, and it presents with classic symptoms such as cough, wheezing, chest tightness, and difficulty in breathing. Occupational chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may develop as a result of exposure to gases, dust, fumes and non-specific vapors. Inhalation of airborne particles released from various sources is the major cause of occupational lung diseases. The sources of the air-borne particles include factories, construction sites, fires, mining industries, shipbuilding yards, exhausts and agriculture.

Smaller particles cause greater damage to the lungs because these are easily inhaled and reach deeper into the lungs. As these particles will not be coughed out, they remain there and eventually get absorbed by the body, leading to severe diseases. Some of the major occupational lung diseases include:

  • Asbestosis and other asbestos-related lung diseases: Asbestosis is a result of long-term exposure to tiny asbestos fibers, which leads to lung scarring and stiffened lung over time. Often associated with construction work, people working in heavy industries, maintenance, and military were exposed to a high concentration of asbestos fibers. Other asbestos-related lung diseases include pleural mesothelioma and lung cancer.
  • Silicosis: This is lung scarring that occurs as a result of long-term exposure to airborne crystalline silica, dust found in mines and blasting operations, clay and glass manufacturing industries.
  • Coal worker's pneumoconiosis or black lung disease: This involves inflammation and scarring of the lungs due to chronic exposure to coal dust. This can result in permanent damage to the lungs and shortness of breath.
  • Work-related asthma: Chronic exposure to dust, fumes, vapors, and toxic gases can lead to symptoms of asthma such as wheezing and chronic cough. It is more common among people working in certain work environments including manufacturing industries, textile industries, refineries, farming, and animal care sites.

Former Industrial Workers with Occupational Lung Diseases Could Develop Serious Complications if they contract COVID-19

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by a novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is spreading rapidly throughout the United States and elsewhere. Former workers with occupational lung diseases are at an increased risk of contracting the disease, potentially due to the compromised immune systems and state of their health. Thus, they need to be well-informed about the precautions and resources to protect their health.

COVID-19 gives rise to flu-like symptoms such as fever, fatigue, cough, sore throat and difficulty breathing. The novel coronavirus infection is contagious and spreads through virus-containing respiratory droplets that are emitted when an infected individual sneezes or coughs. These droplets may enter another person's body through the nose or mouth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC, the facts about COVID-19 include:

  • Symptoms may start appearing as early as two days or as late as 14 days after exposure to the virus.
  • Individuals with underlying respiratory illnesses are in particular danger and at higher risk of getting a more severe form of COVID-19.
  • People with underlying lung diseases such as asthma are at higher risk of getting severely sick from COVID-19.

As COVID-19 affects the respiratory tract and may lead to asthma attacks, pneumonia and acute respiratory diseases, life-threatening complications are a real concern for people who are dealing with lung cancer or even worse for former industrial workers who aren’t even really aware that they might have developed a lung disease or even cancer.

As incredible as it sounds, it’s common that people might not be aware they have it for quite some time, as it can be asymptomatic for a long time and diagnosing it can sometimes be difficult. This is why it’s extremely important for former industrial workers who know they have been exposed to toxic chemicals to consistently check up on their health.

Simply put, developing a severe complications does not only mean the need for intensive care and artificial respiratory support. It means that the already weakened immune system cannot fight off the infection as well as it does at full capacity, permitting the virus to attack the lungs. As they stop functioning at normal capacity, other organs get affected and slowly start shutting down, potentially leading to death.

The first conclusive study that has been conducted in China, analyzed a rough number of 1.590 patients with confirmed diseases, calculating how these comorbidities can influence the risk of intensive care admission or dying. Cancer patients are more susceptible to these risks because of their immunosuppressive state compared to non-cancer patients with a 79 percent higher chance of needing intensive care.

COVID-19 Outbreak Subjects Former Industrial Workers to Following Risks

Although stringent public health measures have been implemented to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus throughout the US, person-to-person transmission is likely to continue for some time. As there is no vaccine yet for COVID-19 prevention, an outbreak may turn into an extended event during which patients with occupational lung disease may experience the following risks:

  • COVID-19 illness may delay routine treatment: Developing symptoms such as fever or shortness of breath may prompt a delay in the regular treatment and procedures, for instance, chemotherapy, so that the illness can be treated first.
  • Decreased availability of medical services: Hospitals and medical care services are already in high demand. As the outbreak continues, wait times will likely increase as will limits to the medication supply.

Coronavirus Safety Precautions for Workers with Occupational Lung Diseases

Being vigilant and well-informed is the best way one can stay safe from the coronavirus and prevent the spread. Here are a few steps that workers with occupational lung diseases should follow to keep coronavirus away:

  • Avoid going to places with large crowds: As COVID-19 is contagious, places with large crowd gatherings need to be avoided.
  • Avoid traveling by air or public transport: Avoid all forms of travel where you will be in a large crowd such as airplanes, buses, trains, and subways. A car trip should be fine, but take care of cleanliness. If you have a treatment scheduled away from your town, have it moved to a place nearby.
  • Delay or defer in-person doctor visits: If you are not in the active stage of treatment, then you should avoid going to a place where infected people are likely to be there. Defer in-person visits to the doctor, instead, you can call the doctor’s office and ask if you have any questions or concerns.
  • Avoid touching your face, nose, eyes, and mouth: Coronavirus can be alive on surfaces for a long time. So, avoid touching surfaces at public places and then touching your nose and mouth as you may end up delivering the virus into your body.
  • Wash your hands often: Use soap and warm water to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Wash your hands frequently, especially before eating, after touching surfaces in a public area (doorknobs, handles, railings, lift buttons), and after using the bathroom. Use an alcohol-based sanitizer with at least 70 percent alcohol.
  • Clean as well as disinfect regularly touched objects: The countertops, desks, cell phones, and household appliances should be wiped clean frequently to avoid virus transfer from the object to your hands.
  • Watch out for symptoms and respond to them immediately: Consult your doctor if you develop symptoms such as fever, dry cough, fatigue and shortness of breath.
  • Be protected against other viruses too: As a precaution, get vaccinated for influenza and pneumonia, if your doctor recommends.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle: This includes good sleep, regular exercise, and eating a balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals.

Throughout this time of the COVID-19 outbreak, it is quite important to take good care of respiratory health by remaining precautious and informing the medical team well ahead time, about any travel history to affected areas in recent times or any contact with a person suspected of COVID-19.

Gregory A. Cade is the principal attorney at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C, with over 20 years of experience in handling occupational toxic exposure claims. With a solid science background in Industrial Hygiene, Gregory has also been an environmental consultant and OSHA compliance expert. 

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