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Original research
Pulmonary function and high-resolution computed tomography in outdoor rock drillers exposed to crystalline silica

Abstract

Objectives Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and silicosis are associated with exposure to crystalline silica. We determined the exposure to respirable crystalline silica and estimated exposure–response relationships between cumulative exposure and pulmonary function in outdoor rock drillers.

Methods 136 rock drillers and 48 referents were recruited from three heavy construction companies. 98 air samples were collected by personal sampling for determination of respirable particulate matter and crystalline silica. Information about individual job tasks, type of drilling equipment and years of exposure in different job categories was obtained by interview. Cumulative exposure to crystalline silica was calculated for all workers. Pulmonary function was assessed by spirometry. A subgroup of 39 subjects with high cumulative exposure to crystalline silica underwent high-resolution computed tomography (HRCT).

Results Cumulative exposure (mean (min–max)) to crystalline silica was 0.69 mg٠years m–3 (0.01–5.89) in the exposed group. Mean time of exposure among rock drillers was 10.7 years (1–42). Compared with referents, the rock drillers had a lower forced expiratory volume in one second/forced vital capacity ratio (79.4 vs 81.4, p<0.05) and maximal mid-expiratory flow% (85.6 vs 93.9, p<0.05). Further, by stratifying the exposed workers into three equally large groups, a dose–response relationship was demonstrated in the highest exposed group, also in never smokers, at a mean cumulative exposure of 21.7 years at 0.08 mg٠m–3/years. Silicosis was not detected in HRCT, but other patterns of fibrosis and emphysema were seen.

Conclusions Outdoor rock drillers exposed to crystalline silica had significantly lower pulmonary function than referents, and signs of airflow obstruction. Silicosis was not detected.

  • epidemiology
  • hygiene / occupational hygiene
  • respiratory
  • silicosis
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