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Aims: To study the relation between lung function decrease and cumulative exposure to dust and gases in tunnel construction workers.
Methods: A total of 651 male construction workers (drill and blast workers, tunnel concrete workers, shotcreting operators, and tunnel boring machine workers) were followed up by spirometric measurements in 1989–2002 for an average of six years. Outdoor concrete workers, foremen, and engineers served as a low exposed referent population.
Results: The between worker component of variability was considerably reduced within the job groups compared to the whole population, suggesting that the workers within job groups had similar exposure levels. The annual decrease in FEV1 in low-exposed non-smoking workers was 21 ml and 24 ml in low-exposed ever smokers. The annual decrease in FEV1 in tunnel construction workers was 20–31 ml higher than the low exposed workers depending on job group for both non-smokers and ever smokers. After adjustment for age and observation time, cumulative exposure to nitrogen dioxide showed the strongest association with a decrease in FEV1 in both non-smokers, and ever smokers.
Conclusion: Cumulative exposure to nitrogen dioxide appeared to be a major risk factor for lung function decreases in these tunnel construction workers, although other agents may have contributed to the observed effect. Contact with blasting fumes should be avoided, diesel exhaust emissions should be reduced, and respiratory devices should be used to protect workers against dust and nitrogen dioxide exposure.