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Written by: Tracey Jones
Occupational diseases that attack injured workers’ lungs are often filed with the North Carolina Industrial Commission. The most common lung diseases include: (1) silicosis; (2) asbestosis; (3) byssinosis; and (4) occupational asthma. Silicosis and asbestosis are specifically enumerated in N.C Gen. Stat. § 97-53. Byssinosis and occupational asthma are not specifically enumerated under this statute, but fall under the “catch-all” provision of the statute.
Silicosis is a progressive disease that belongs to a group of lung disorders called pneumoconiosis. Silicosis is marked by the formulation of lumps (nodules) and fibrous scar tissue in the lungs. It is the oldest known occupational lung disease and is caused by exposure to inhaled particles of silica, mostly from quartz in rock, sand, and similar substances.
The precise mechanism that triggers the development of silicosis is still unclear. What is known is that particles of silica dust get trapped in the tiny sacs (alveoli) in the lungs where air exchange takes place. Diagnosis of silicosis is based on a detailed occupational history, chest X-rays, bronchoscopy and lung function tests. There is currently no cure for silicosis; however, treatment is available to relieve symptoms, treat complications, and prevent respiratory infections.
Asbestosis is a chronic, progressive inflammation of the lungs. Asbestosis is a consequence of prolonged exposure to large quantities of asbestos, a material once widely used in construction, insulation, and manufacturing. Asbestosis is most common in men over 40 who have worked in asbestos-related occupations. Smokers or heavy drinkers have the greatest risk of developing the disease.
Occupational exposure is the most common cause of asbestosis. Screening of at-risk workers can reveal lung inflammation and lesions including fibrosis (scarring of the lungs), as well as restriction on pulmonary function testing (PFT). The scarring is usually in the lower lobes of the lungs and the scarring is normally bilateral, or seen in both lungs. Pleural plaques are also seen in workers exposed to asbestos, but these plaques are generally not compensable under the NC Workers’ Compensation Act as they do not cause breathing impairment.
Byssinosis is a chronic, asthma-like narrowing of the airways. It is also known as the “Brown Lung” disease. The disease results from inhaling particles of cotton, flax, hemp or jute. More than 800,000 workers in the cotton, flax and rope-making industries are exposed in the workplace to airborne particles that can cause byssinosis.
Occupational asthma is a form of lung disease in which the breathing passages shrink, swell or become inflamed or congested as a result of exposure to irritants in the workplace. At least 15% of all cases of asthma can be tied to exposure to: animal hair, dander, dust, fumes, insulation and packaging materials, mites and other insects, or paints. Occupational asthma is most likely to impact workers who have personal or family histories of allergies or asthma, or who are often required to handle or breathe dust or fumes created by especially irritating material.
Short-term exposure to low levels of one or more irritating substances can cause a very sensitive person to develop symptoms of occupational asthma. A person with occupational asthma may have one or more symptoms, including cough, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, and wheezing. The most effective treatment for occupational asthma is to reduce or eliminate exposure to symptom-producing substances. It is also important to note that this disease can be reversible.
Each of these diseases, the symptoms, and the treatment required are unique and should be treated as such. When a plaintiff files a workers’ compensation claim alleging an occupational disease lung claim with the North Carolina Industrial Commission, defendants must be prepared to proactively defend the claim with expert medical and vocational assessments.