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Occupational diseases

Occupational diseases and conditions

Occupational diseases and conditions are classified according to their causative factors and the type of work undertaken. These factors may be of a physical, chemical, biological or work-related origin. Exposure to physical phenomena, such as noise for instance, may result in workers suffering noise-induced hearing loss. On the other hand, people handling hazardous chemical substances may contract dermatitis and those involved in stripping asbestos could suffer from asbestosis.

Since the Industrial Revolution many diseases and conditions have been associated with a range of employment activities. For instance, coal worker’s pneumoconiosis is commonly associated with the coal mining industry, byssinosis with the cotton industry, phosphorus poisoning with the manufacture of matches, and brucellosis with people such as stockmen, herdsmen, veterinary surgeons and others working with livestock in agriculture.

Occupational diseases and conditions are therefore those diseases and conditions contracted or caused as a result of a particular employment.

The classification of occupational diseases and conditions is generally based on the agents causing the disease and the work activities undertaken. These causative agents may be of a physical, chemical, biological or work-related nature.

Physical agents

Physical phenomena such as radiation, noise, vibration, heat and pressure will, after prolonged or even short exposure, cause ill-health.


Workers dealing with, or coming into contact with, particularly, unsealed sources of radiation may suffer a range of symptoms from hair loss and fibrosis of the skin following local exposure or, more seriously, chronic anaemia and leukaemia as a result of general exposure to small doses over a period of time.


Noise-induced hearing loss (occupational deafness) is a well-established occupational condition in the ship-building, mining and quarrying industries. Workers may contract occupational deafness through being exposed to continuous sound pressure levels above 90 dBA or suffer acoustic trauma as a result of one single exposure to, for instance, an explosion.


The condition known as ‘vibration-induced white finger’ is commonly associated with the use of compressed air-operated equipment and electrically-operated hand tools, such as rotary sanders and chain saws. Drivers of, for instance, earth moving equipment may suffer the ill effects arising from whole-body vibration.


Working in high temperatures, as with foundry work, can result in heat stroke and heat cramps.


Decompression sickness is commonly associated with those working under water, such as divers and people working in pressurized environments, for instance in a caisson, an underwater working chamber.

Chemical agents

Many hazardous substances are used in manufacturing, processing and servicing industries. These may include acids, alkalis, organic solvents and carcinogenic substances. These substances may have toxic, corrosive, harmful, irritant or other harmful effects on those exposed. The majority of these substances are defined as ‘substances hazardous to health’ under the COSHH Regulations and are classified according to their health effects under the Chemicals (Hazard Information and Packaging for Supply) (CHIP) Regulations.


The most common occupational disease associated with exposure to chemical agents is dermatitis. These agents may be classed as primary irritants, such acids and alkalis, or secondary cutaneous sensitisers, such as nickel.

Occupational cancers

Exposure to a number of organic substances, such a beta-naphthylamine and vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), may result in a range of cancers in different body organs, such as the bladder and liver. As with most forms of cancer, the tumour involved may develop secondary growths, or metastases, which can be spread to other parts of the body via the circulatory or lymphatic systems.

Chemical poisoning

The form taken by a chemical agent, e.g. a dust, gas, vapour, fume, mist or fog, is significant in the potential for harm of that agent. Exposure to a range of gases, such as ammonia and chlorine, fume, such as lead fume, and chromic acid mist can result in damage to specific body organs.

Biological agents

Biological agents may be human-borne, animal-borne and vegetable-borne. This includes bacteria, certain dusts and viruses.

Bacterial and other agents

Certain bacteria, viruses and micro-organisms hazardous to health are listed in the ACOP Control of Biological Agents issued by the HSC in conjunction with the COSHH Regulations. Most prominent of these biological agents is Legionella pneumophila, the agent responsible for legionellosis or legionnaires’ disease.


Biological agents further include that range of micro-organisms that are transmissible from animal to man, including the agents responsible for the range of diseases known as zoonoses. Classic examples are brucellosis, leptospirosis and Q-fever.

Vegetable-borne agents

Certain airborne agents, particularly dusts and spores arising from vegetables and cereals, can have serious effects on people. These include aspergillosis or farmer’s lung, an influenza-like hypersensitive pulmonary condition associated with exposure to the dust and spores from mouldy hay.

Work-related factors

The type of work that people undertake is a common causative factor in the development of a range of ill-health conditions, particularly that group of disorders known as the ‘beat’ disorders, various work-related upper limb disorders and cramp conditions arising from work movements.

The beat disorders

Beat knee and beat elbow, commonly referred to as ‘housemaid’s knee’ and ‘tennis elbow’ respectively, are two painful conditions caused by inflammation of the joint which may be followed by suppuration due to infection entering the joint.

These disorders are frequently associated with people involved in manual labour, such as paviors, gardeners and horticultural workers, where the work causes severe or prolonged friction or pressure at or about the joint.

Work-related upper limb disorders (WRULDs)

These disorders include that group of disorders known as ‘repetitive strain injury’, (RSI) including tenosynovitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and Dupuytren’s contracture. In most cases, the disorders are associated with tasks requiring the repetitive movement of the hand, elbow and/or forearm coupled with the application of force. Common symptoms include local pain, swelling, tenderness and inflammation which is aggravated by pressure or movement.


Most people will have suffered the painful condition known as ‘writer’s cramp’ on a temporary basis, perhaps after a series of written examinations or intensive note-taking sessions. The condition soon fades, however, after completion of the writing task. Some occupations, however, may entail prolonged periods which require repetitive movements of the hand or arm.

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