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Many acute and chronic pulmonary diseases are directly related to inhalation of noxious substances encountered in the workplace. Disorders that are linked to occupational exposures may be classified as follows: (1) pneumoconioses, (2) hypersensitivity pneumonitis, (3) obstructive airway disorders, (4) toxic lung injury, (5) lung cancer, (6) pleural diseases, and (7) other occupational pulmonary diseases.


Pneumoconioses are chronic fibrotic lung diseases caused by the inhalation of inert inorganic dusts. Pneumoconioses range from asymptomatic disorders with diffuse nodular opacities on chest radiograph to severe, symptomatic, life-shortening disorders. Clinically important pneumoconioses include coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, silicosis, and asbestosis (Table 9–21). Treatment for each is supportive; pulmonary rehabilitation may be considered.

Table 9–21.Selected pneumoconioses.

A. Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis

In coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, ingestion of inhaled coal dust by alveolar macrophages leads to the formation of coal macules, usually 2–5 mm in diameter, that appear on chest radiograph as diffuse small opacities that are especially prominent in the upper lung. Simple coal worker’s pneumoconiosis is usually asymptomatic; pulmonary function abnormalities are unimpressive. In complicated coal worker’s pneumoconiosis (“progressive massive fibrosis”), conglomeration and contraction in the upper lung zones occur, with radiographic features resembling complicated silicosis. Caplan syndrome is a rare condition characterized by the presence of necrobiotic rheumatoid nodules (1–5 cm in diameter) in the periphery of the lung in coal workers with rheumatoid arthritis.

B. Silicosis

In silicosis, extensive or prolonged inhalation of free silica (silicon dioxide) particles in the respirable range (0.3–5 mcm) causes the formation of small rounded opacities (silicotic nodules) throughout the lung. Calcification of the periphery of hilar lymph nodes (“eggshell” calcification) is an unusual radiographic finding that strongly suggests silicosis. Simple silicosis is usually asymptomatic and has no effect on routine pulmonary function tests; in complicated silicosis, large conglomerate densities appear in the upper lung and are accompanied by dyspnea and obstructive and restrictive pulmonary dysfunction. The incidence of pulmonary tuberculosis is increased in patients with silicosis. All patients with silicosis should have a tuberculin skin test and a current chest radiograph. If old, healed pulmonary tuberculosis is suspected, multidrug treatment for tuberculosis (not single-agent preventive therapy) should be instituted.

C. Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a nodular interstitial fibrosis occurring ...

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