A worker’s respiratory tract can come into contact with about 14,000L of air during a 40-hour working week – and physical activity will increase their breathing rate even more. Therefore, the quality of the air we breathe at work can have major implications for a worker’s respiratory health.
Any part of the respiratory tract, from the nose down to the alveoli (the tiny air sacs in the lungs), can be affected by airborne contaminants. The part of the respiratory tract affected depends on:
- the properties of the air contaminants eg toxicity, water solubility
- the intensity and duration of the exposure
- the integrity of the worker’s body defence mechanisms, and
- the individual’s susceptibility
Airborne contaminants may be dusts, gases, vapours, or fumes.
Inhalation of airborne contaminants may immediately injure the respiratory tract and cause acute symptoms, such as shortness of breath, cough and chest tightness, and require emergency medical care – or it could lead to prolonged symptoms due to the development of irritant induced lung disease.
The extent of injury will depend on the type and dose of exposure.