Completed Research

COPD Risks Among Construction Workers (Completed – 2004-2009)

John M. Dement, Ph.D., CIH

Duke University
2200 W. Main Street Ste 700A
Durham, NC
Ph: (919)286-3232
[email protected]

Dr. Dement and his colleagues surveyed the occurrence of chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD) in 10,000 sheet metal workers and nearly 20,000 construction workers who had been employed at Department of Energy (DOE) sites. The researchers collected medical screening data and analyzed data on a variety of occupational factors, such as exposure to asbestos and silica, and personal habits such as smoking. Although COPD is often manifested as emphysema or chronic bronchitis, the lung disease is a diagnosis given to conditions that make breathing labored. The findings take into account the health effects of smoking.


  • DOE cement masons, brick masons, and plasterers had a COPD prevalence of 24.0 percent, much higher than the overall prevalence of 15 percent among the entire DOE study population.
  • For the DOE workers, COPD risk was linked with exposure to asbestos, welding fumes, silica, and cement dust.
  • The DOE data suggest that COPD risk is also linked exposures to solvents while fueling trucks and equipment and while mixing and applying paints.
  • Sheet metal workers had an overall COPD prevalence of 9.8 percent. Welding tasks and tasks that produce cement dust appear to pose the greatest risk of developing COPD in these workers; however, these analyses are ongoing and results preliminary.
Original Project Abstract:
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a major public health problem with an estimated 8.5% of the U.S. population reporting prevalent disease. COPD causes over 124,000 deaths per year. Occupational exposures are estimated to cause approximately 15% of all COPD cases and construction workers have been shown to be at significantly increased risk. However, specific construction worker exposures contributing to the risk of COPD have not been adequately identified nor studied.

We propose to study occupational and non-occupational risk factors for COPD among a large cohort of sheet metal workers participating in the lung disease surveillance program funded by the Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute Trust (SMOHIT). The proposed research represents a unique opportunity to study COPD risk factors among construction workers at a very modest cost.

Specifically, we will:

  • Design and field test a self-administered interview questionnaire to elicit detailed information concerning occupational and non-occupational exposures and COPD risk factors experienced by sheet metal workers.
  • Integrate the exposure questionnaire into the ongoing SMOHIT lung disease surveillance program. Data will be collected over a four-year period and will provide information concerning exposures, respiratory symptoms, chest x-rays, and pulmonary function on a cohort of over 7000 sheet metal workers.
  • Conduct both cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses in order to evaluate occupational and non-occupational COPD risk factors among sheet metal workers. These analyses should have excellent statistical power as over 500 COPD cases are anticipated to be available for analyses.

The proposed research responds to the several areas included in the occupational health component of the CPWR request: Priority agents to be addressed by this research include silica, welding fumes, man-made mineral fibers, and asbestos as risk factors for COPD. This research also will better characterize risk, leading to the development of COPD prevention strategies and research.