Occupational Diseases

What are occupational diseases?

Occupational diseases are those contracted as a result of work, whether employed or self-employed. In order to be considered as such, two requirements must be met: first, that the cause of the disease is found in the workplace and is listed in the official list of occupational diseases of the Ministry of Employment and Social Security, and also that the injury is caused by the action of substances or elements indicated in the list.

Depending on the cause, occupational diseases can be:

  • Diseases caused by chemical agents
  • Diseases caused by physical agents
  • Diseases caused by biological agents
  • Diseases caused by inhalation of substances and agents not included in other sections.
  • Diseases caused by substances and agents not included in any of the other sections.
  • Illnesses caused by carcinogenic agents

Likewise, the diseases faced by workers may be:

  • Physical: vibrations produced by tools, noise, breathing fumes or gases, noise, high or low temperature, etc.
  • Ergonomic: repetitive movements, sitting in a bad position for many hours at a time, heavy loads…
  • Psychosocial: emotional demands, work demands, stress, high work pace, etc.

Occupational diseases are those contracted as a result of work.

Prognosis of the disease

The prognosis of the disease will depend on the type of injury suffered by the patient. In most cases they are not serious injuries, but there are specific cases of cancers caused by exposure to certain toxins.

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Symptoms of occupational diseases

The symptoms of occupational diseases can be physical or psychological, depending on the cause of the injury.

The main occupational diseases are musculoskeletal diseases, which respond to damage resulting from repetitive activities, force or dysfunctional postures that are maintained over time. In repetitive activities the muscles do not relax completely, and the level of perfusion of the muscle cells and tendons decreases, with the patient suffering pain and reduced muscle capacity. If this persists, the affected structures become inflamed.

Among the most frequent musculoskeletal diseases are tendinitis and low back pain. Tendinitis is the swelling or inflammation of the tendon that joins the muscle to the bone. It can be the result of an injury, overload or age, as the tendon loses elasticity. Symptoms are pain and tenderness in the tendon, usually near a joint. The pain is accentuated during the night and with movement or activity.

Low back pain is low back pain caused by disorders of the lumbar vertebrae and soft tissue structures and intervertebral discs. Its causes may be various, but the most common is stress, physical overexertion and bad posture.

Other injuries, especially elbow, wrist and hand injuries, are also common. Thus, carpal tunnel syndrome is one of the most frequent. It is a painful disorder of the wrist and hand. The carpal tunnel is the tunnel formed by bones and other tissues in the wrist. It protects the median nerve, which provides sensation to the thumb, index, middle and ring fingers. If the carpal tunnel tissues become inflamed, they press on the median nerve and the patient’s hand feels numb.

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Another upper extremity injury is lateral humeral epicondylitis, which is inflammation and pain on the outer (lateral) side of the upper arm near the elbow. The patient may have some tearing of the tendon fibers that connect the muscle to the bone. This injury is caused by repetitive wrist or forearm movements.

Among the less common, but not non-existent, injuries is occupational cancer. Occupational exposures are estimated to be responsible for 1 to 20% of cancers. These occupational exposures can be minimized or eliminated and are very important in terms of public health, so prevention is essential. Those that have been associated with occupational exposures are lung cancer, bladder cancer, nose cancer, liver cancer, leukemia, mesothelioma, lymphoma and non-melanocytic skin cancer.

Medical tests for occupational diseases

The medical tests to determine occupational diseases will be of the most varied, according to the symptoms of the patient’s injury and according to what the specialist considers. Normally the medical expertise will include a series of tests to narrow down and determine the disease. These may range from MRI scans to X-rays, blood tests, biopsies, etc.

What are the causes of occupational diseases?

The causes of occupational diseases are related to the activity carried out by the patient at work. Thus, most musculoskeletal injuries and injuries of the upper extremity are caused by repetitive movements of the joints or injuries during work. In psychological diseases, stress or pressure at work can be determining causes. In cases of more serious pathologies, such as cancer, toxic exposure is one of the main causes.

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Can it be prevented?

Prevention in occupational diseases is very important. The best form of prevention, in cases of cancers caused by toxins, is to avoid and not use recognized carcinogens in the workplace. It is also a good option to stop using the chemical if it is suspected to be carcinogenic. If it is not possible to eliminate the toxicant, it is important to reduce the levels of exposure to it, with industrial processes and industrial hygiene practices.

On the other hand, in diseases related to the movements performed during work, it is best to avoid the repetition of certain habits or to protect the joints with appropriate accessories (wrist straps, compression bands…).

Treatments for occupational diseases

The treatment of occupational diseases will differ according to the pathology or injury suffered by the patient. Thus, in musculoskeletal diseases it will be important to relieve pain and inflammation, which may include physiotherapy, cortisone injections, anesthetics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and even immobilization of the joint, especially in the case of the upper extremity. In some cases, such as carpal tunnel injuries, surgery may be necessary.

Which specialist treats it?

Various specialists deal with occupational diseases. The family physician will be the first specialist to evaluate the symptoms presented by the patient, although specialists in Forensic Medicine will be the main ones in charge of analyzing in depth the possible pathology of the patient. Other specialists, such as allergists, will also be involved.