Background: Specific occupations are associated with adverse respiratory health. Inhalation exposures encountered in these jobs may place workers at risk of new-onset respiratory disease.
Methods: We analyzed data from 8,967 participants from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study, a longitudinal cohort study. Participants included in this analysis were free of chronic cough and phlegm, wheezing, asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and other chronic lung conditions at the baseline examination, when they were aged 45-64 years. Using data collected in the baseline and first follow-up examination, we evaluated associations between occupation and the three-year incidence of cough, phlegm, wheezing, and airway obstruction and changes in forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) and forced vital capacity (FVC) measured by spirometry. All associations were adjusted for age, cigarettes per day, race, smoking status, and study center.
Results: During the approximately three-year follow-up, the percentage of participants developing chronic cough was 3%; chronic phlegm, 3%; wheezing, 3%; and airway obstruction, defined as FEV1 < lower limit of normal (LLN) and FEV1/FVC < LLN, 2%. The average annual declines in FEV1 and FVC were 56 mL and 66 mL, respectively, among men and 40 mL and 52 mL, respectively, among women. Relative to a referent category of managerial and administrative support occupations, elevated risks of new-onset chronic cough and chronic phlegm were observed for mechanics and repairers (chronic cough: RR: 1.81, 95% CI: 1.02, 3.21; chronic phlegm: RR: 2.10, 95% CI: 1.23, 3.57) and cleaning and building service workers (chronic cough: RR: 1.85, 95% CI: 1.01, 3.37; chronic phlegm: RR: 2.28, 95% CI: 1.27, 4.08). Despite the elevated risk of new-onset symptoms, employment in cleaning and building services was associated with attenuated lung function decline, particularly among men, who averaged annual declines in FEV1 and FVC of 14 mL and 23 mL, respectively, less than the declines observed in the referent population.
Conclusions: Employment in mechanic and repair jobs and cleaning and building service occupations are associated with increased incidence of respiratory symptoms. Specific occupations affect the respiratory health of adults without pre-existing respiratory health symptoms and conditions, though long-term health consequences of inhalation exposures in these jobs remain largely unexplored.