This study relates the impact of various medical conditions to clinically important forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) declines in a cohort of steelworkers evaluated cross-sectionally and longitudinally. Medical records of 1171 randomly chosen steelworkers were obtained from the medical department of a steel company. We reviewed the medical records for information regarding demographic parameters, smoking status, spirometry indexes, job history, and the worker's respiratory health. These workers had performed annual spirometry from 1980 to 1991 at least once and up to 12 times. We compared the prevalence of medical conditions in 203 male never-smoking steelworkers in this group of 1171 workers by separating workers into three groups on the basis of final predicted FEV1 values (< 65%, between 65% and 79%, and > or = 80%). We also evaluated the prevalence of medical conditions and the association between these conditions and the rate of annual decline in FEV1 in 475 steelworkers who had at least three valid tests and at least 5 years separating the first and last test by multiple logistic regression analysis. Of the 475 steelworkers, 121 were categorized as rapid decliners (an annual rate of decline in FEV1 exceeding the 75th percentile of the slope distribution), whereas the remaining workers served as controls. Three of 203 and 17 of the remaining 200 in the cross-sectional survey had final predicted FEV1 values < 65% or between 65% and 79%, respectively. Among these 20 never-smokers, the accelerated rate of decline could be reasonably explained by factors independent of dust and age in all but two. In the 203 never-smokers, hay fever and trauma occurred more frequently in those with a decreased predicted FEV1. In the longitudinal study of 475 workers, the prevalence of pneumonia was significantly greater in the rapid decliners, whereas the prevalence of allergy, asthma or hay fever, and trauma approached a significant excess in number. Logistic regression models demonstrated that aging, weight gain, smoking, trauma, pneumonia, and a history of allergy, asthma, or hay fever were independently related to the risk of a clinically important decline of FEV1 in this group. In summary, there are multiple risk factors for an accelerated rate of decline in workers with dust exposure. An accurate assessment of the causes for an excessive rate of lung function decline in an individual worker within a population requires an understanding of the relationship between environmental exposures, lung function decline, and the individual worker's underlying health. In addition to the three traditionally recognized variables--age, smoking, and dust exposure--the medical conditions of trauma, pneumonia, and allergy, asthma, or hay fever were related to a clinically important decline of FEV1 in this industrial population.