Pulmonary Function Tests for Workplace Airborne Hazards

Pulmonary function tests are an essential part of worker safety in industries where they are exposed to irritating or harmful vapors, gases, fumes, or dust. OSHA regulations require spirometry, a type of pulmonary function test, for many industries with exposure to these harmful substances. In this article, we’ll discuss what pulmonary function tests are, what happens in a pulmonary function test, why they are needed, why they are important in the workplace, the types of pulmonary function tests, and where to go to get one. 

What is a Pulmonary Function Test?

A pulmonary function test answers one simple question: how healthy is your breathing? There are a variety of different pulmonary function tests, and they all work to assess your breathing capacity, blood oxygen levels, and other pulmonary functions. These tests are used to monitor lung health in workers who are exposed to environmental toxins or irritants and to determine the cause of breathing problems and what medical treatment is necessary. 

Why are Pulmonary Function Tests Conducted?

Pulmonary function tests help health providers determine the health of your lungs and what, if any, medical intervention is necessary. Pulmonary function testing helps to discover if your airways have narrowed at all, and they can find initial changes in your lung’s ability to transfer oxygen to your red blood cells. Doctors use these tests to find out if medication like a bronchodilator would be useful to you. Pulmonary function tests show if your lungs have been harmed by environmental toxins, such as in an industrial workplace. These tests are also used to determine if your lungs are healthy enough to withstand the strain of surgery. Measuring the effects of pulmonary disorders like chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), cystic fibrosis or asthma is another reason doctors will order pulmonary function tests. 

  • Importance of pulmonary function tests in the workplace

Pulmonary function tests help doctors to determine if you have a breathing disorder. This is important for any workplace since illness reduces productivity, but it is especially important in industries where workers are exposed to harmful substances. Coal and other mining, manufacturing, HVAC, logistics, and transportation are just some of the industries where workers are regularly exposed to vapors, gases, fumes, dust, and other respiratory irritants that can build up in the lungs, causing damage. Pulmonary function tests, specifically spirometry, are used in these industries to monitor workers’ exposure to these dangerous substances and to determine if further pulmonary function tests are required. 

Types of Pulmonary Function Tests

There are many types of pulmonary function tests.

  • Spirometry

This is the most basic pulmonary function test and is often used to determine what further testing is needed. With this test, you are seated comfortably, with your nostrils closed off by a clip. You will exhale into a tube connected to a machine called a spirometer three different times. This test measures forced vital capacity (FVC), or how much air you can forcefully exhale after taking your deepest breath. It also measures forced expiratory volume (FEV) which is the amount of air you can exhale from your lungs in one second. 

  • Cardiopulmonary exercise test (CPET)

This is a particular kind of exercise stress test designed to measure your ability to exercise and to discover what could be restricting your physical activity levels. You’ll usually be running on a treadmill or exercise bicycle where you take your test. This test measures how well these parts of your body are working when you exercise: your lungs, heart, blood vessels, and your muscles. A CPET does more than that, it also checks how much oxygen your body has access to while you’re exercising. 

Expect to be wearing electronic monitors that will record your body’s vital information. These include EKG monitors which measure your heart rate, a blood pressure cuff, a pulse oximeter to detect how much oxygen is in your blood, and a mouthpiece connected to a tube to a machine called a flow meter. This machine measures how fully and how fast you breathe in and out, along with the flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide from your lungs as you inhale and exhale. Expect this test to last about 10 minutes. You’ll start at a slow rate of exercise and then either the speed or resistance will increase until you need to stop. Before stopping, there will be a cool-down period. 

  • Bronchial provocation test

This test determines how sensitive your lungs are, thus the term “provocation”. Doctors will use this test to determine if you are suffering from asthma or not. There are three types of bronchial provocation tests. An irritant challenge test involves exposure to a known asthma trigger, like a chemical or smoke, to see if any symptoms arise. An exercise challenge test is similar to the CPET, but its goal is to see if the exercise triggers any potential asthma you might have. The methacholine challenge uses exposure to the chemical methacholine to measure for asthma. Methacholine exposure constricts the airways of people with asthma at a low dose. It will constrict a healthy person’s airways at high doses. If you’re having asthma symptoms, but don’t respond to a low dose of methacholine, your doctor knows to look for another condition or cause. 

  • Exhaled nitric oxide test

This test is similar in form to spirometry, where you breathe in fully and then exhale forcefully into a tube connected to a machine that measures how well you’re breathing. In an exhaled nitric oxide test, it is the levels of nitric oxide in your breath that are being measured. This is useful information for your doctor because higher amounts of nitric oxide indicate that your airways are inflamed, which could indicate allergic asthma. If that’s the case, then your doctor will likely prescribe you corticosteroids, which reduce inflammation. 

Where to Get Pulmonary Function Tests for the Workplace

BioFunctional Health Solutions (BHS) offers professional pulmonary function testing for the workplace. Help protect your workers’ lung health by screening for health issues with pulmonary function testing. We make it easy to get started. Reach out to BHS today for excellence in occupational health services. 

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