A study by the CDC is confirming that occupational exposure raises the risk for nonsmokers, with some unexpected findings. Smoking is still the number one risk factor for developing COPD, but it appears that working in an office is a greater risk for COPD for a nonsmoker than working in a mine.
The study ranked the professions that reported the highest incidence of cases of COPD.
To analyze the risk in specific industries and occupations, the CDC studied data from the 2013 to 2017 National Health Interview Survey. Between those years, an estimated 2.4 million (2.2%) U.S. working nonsmokers, 18 and older, reported symptoms of COPD.
The highest incidence of COPD was found among workers in the information (3.3%) industries and among office and administrative support occupations workers (3.3%) followed by mining workers (3.1%). In other words, the incidence reported by nonsmoking office workers ranked slightly higher than that of miners.
More COPD cases among nonsmokers were reported among workers older than 65 (4.6%), among women (3.0%) and in those reporting fair or poor health (6.7 percent). Topping the list were women who worked in the information industry (5.1%), followed by those who worked in transportation and material-moving occupations (4.5%). Among male nonsmokers the highest incidence was recorded among those employed in the agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting industries (2.3%) while the administrative and support, waste management, and remediation services industries also ranked at (2.3%).
Working in an office may seem like a relatively safe profession, but office workers may be exposed to a variety of organic and inorganic dusts, gases, fumes, and chemicals—all of which are known respiratory irritants that have been associated with bronchitis, emphysema, and COPD. Workplace exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke has also been associated with a higher risk of developing COPD.
The study had some limitations, notably that the information on COPD symptoms was self-reported. Medical records were not accessed to confirm those self-reports. Nor did the participants take pulmonary function tests. No work history, secondhand smoke exposure, or workplace exposure information was available for confirmation. However, multiple previous studies have established a general link between workplace exposure and COPD risk.
Currently, COPD is the third leading cause of death by disease in the United States. New cases can be prevented by reducing and eliminating workplace exposures to dust, vapors, fumes, and chemicals. Workers who suspect they are being exposed to hazardous substances can contact the United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration.