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Preventing Occupational Disease

The National Safety Council estimates that at least one out of every four workers in the U.S. is exposed at work to potentially toxic substances. According to the National Safe Workplace Institute, the American worker is now more likely to die from an occupational disease than a motor vehicle accident.

Work-related diseases result from breathing air contaminated by toxic dusts, gases, sprays, smokes, fumes, and vapors. Many of these diseases could often be prevented by proper respiratory protection.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (O.S.H.A.) has established workplace safety requirements for respiratory protection. Those concerned with workplace safety should be familiar with O.S.H.A.’s minimum requirements for respiratory protection. They include:


Since many respiratory hazards are invisible or odorless, the air in the workplace must be regularly tested for harmful contaminants. Air samples used in testing should be taken from the employee’s breathing zone as well as the area around the workplace.


If less hazardous chemicals or substances cannot be used, or if the air contaminants cannot be confined, adequate ventilation must be provided as far as possible. Respirators are not a substitute for ventilation if ventilation is a feasible alternative.


It is the employer’s (and not the employee’s) responsibility to provide a respirator when it is necessary to protect the health of the employee. Different types of respirators are required for different types of hazardous dusts, gases, sprays, smokes, fumes, and vapors.


Employees should not be assigned to a job involving toxic substances unless a physician has determined that they can safely perform the work. In addition, the employee should continue to receive medical exams by a physician at least annually.

During the last decade, the workplace has changed and so have the health risks associated with it. New technologies, new materials, and the changing composition of the work force have all contributed to a new wave of occupational diseases.

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