Reducing exposure to harmful agents in the workplace, in addition to a reduction in cigarette smoking, can help prevent a major proportion of lung disease. To prevent occupational lung diseases, a comprehensive strategy is required – one which combines medical and environmental surveillance, reduction and removal of exposures, promotion of health and education, regulation, research and enforcement. None of the individual strategy components should be ignored if the effectiveness of prevention measures is to be maintained.
The main objective of a strategy for the preventing occupational lung disease should be to protect workers from being exposed to dangerous levels of hazardous substances. To implement the strategy, changes in work practices and technological controls are often required. Employers are encouraged to establish comprehensive information and training programs and to develop on the basis of sound educational principles to inform workers, engineers, managers and healthcare professionals about the dangers of airborne particles and control measures installed to mitigate them.
Many public health professionals feel systematic studies are required to get reliable data about occupations and industries that are at a risk for occupational lung disease. Also required are studies that can help measure the incidence and prevalence of ailments in all types of industries that use hazardous materials.
An essential requirement is to establish stringent and medically-based regulation of exposure levels for all types of substances known to cause occupational lung disease. In situations where not much information is available about safe levels, it is necessary to expedite research in order to provide an appropriate platform for effective regulation. In some areas OSHA regulations fail to reflect existing medical knowledge (for instance, cases where levels recommended by NIOSH are more stringent). When the regulatory agencies and the plant industrial hygienists develop acceptable exposure levels they should consider all potential diseases caused by a given substance. To prevent exposure to respiratory toxins in the workplace, there are specific steps with the following recommendations:
- Substitution is the best way to prevent hazardous emissions (i.e. replacing hazardous substances with those that are less hazardous).
- Imposition of rigorous engineering controls is the second best way to prevent airborne exposure. This would include ventilation and process design which does not allow release of gases and toxic particles into the air.
- Use of protective gear and respirators has been shown to be the least satisfactory method of preventing occupational respiratory exposures. This method should be used only if other methods cannot cope with the problem or hazard.
- All approaches used for reducing exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace should be supported by stringent enforcement of law and through periodic review of current legal standards that regulate occupational exposure.