Health Risks of Construction Dust

Health Risks of Construction Dust

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Construction dust, a common byproduct of numerous construction activities, poses significant health risks to workers. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations mandate the protection against risks from hazardous construction dusts, emphasising the assessment, control, and review model. Regular exposure to construction dust can lead to serious diseases like lung cancer, asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and silicosis. According to the HSE website over 500 construction workers are believed to die annually from exposure to silica dust​​.

Dangers of Silica Dust

Silica dust, found in materials like stone, rock, sand, gravel, clay, and products like bricks, tiles, and concrete, becomes a health hazard when these materials are worked on, releasing fine dust known as respirable crystalline silica. Inhaling silica dust can cause lung cancer, silicosis, kidney disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

To mitigate these risks, workplaces must adhere to work health and safety laws, requiring employers to ensure the health and safety of their workers and control risks associated with work. The law regards employers and self-employed persons as having the same responsibilities in terms of protecting themselves and those around them from their acts and omissions. Workers also have responsibilities, including taking care of their own health and safety and not negatively affecting others​​. The mandatory limit for silica dust exposure in the UK is 0.1 mg/m3 respirable dust, averaged over 8 hours.

Control Measures for Silica Dust

Effective control measures for silica dust involve a range of strategies, including using alternative materials, correct equipment with dust suppression features, workshop ventilation, on-tool extraction, water suppression, and respiratory protective equipment (RPE). It’s crucial to note that no RPE can prevent all silica dust from being inhaled and should fit properly to be effective​​. In addition to silica dust, other types of construction dust also pose significant health risks. These include:

Wood Dust

Wood dust, generated when wood is cut or sanded, can contain harmful substances like chemicals used in wood treatment or finish, as well as fine particles of wood. Workers involved in carpentry, furniture making, lumber milling, and cabinet making are at risk of respiratory issues (including allergic reactions, chronic bronchitis, and cancer), skin problems (such as dermatitis), eye injuries, and hazards from fires and explosions due to wood dust accumulation​​.

Much like silica dust, hardwood and softwood dusts also have workplace exposure limits (WEL) which must not be exceeded. The WEL for hardwood dust is 3mg/m3 (based on an 8 hour time weighted average), while the WEL for softwood dust is 5 mg/m3 (based on an 8 hour time weighted average). The HSE website states that’s where there is a mixture of hardwood and softwood dust, the WEL for hardwood dust of 3mg/m3 applies to all wood dusts present in that mixture.

Health Risks of Construction Dust - wood dust the picture shows a bearded man clapping his hands and wood dust arising, he is not waering a face mask

Lower Toxicity Dust

Lower toxicity dust, also known as non-silica dusts, are generated from materials containing little or no silica. This includes work on marble, limestone, and gypsum. While considered lower in toxicity compared to silica dust, they still pose risks and require appropriate safety measures​​.

Nano-Sized Particles

Nano-sized ultrafine particles like titanium dioxide (TiO2, also known as e-number E171 in food products) or zinc oxide (ZnO) found in some construction materials have been linked to lung inflammation and lung cancer in lab animals. TiO2, for example, is considered a potential occupational carcinogen, with exposure limits recommended by NIOSH​​ in the USA and a total ban in food products in the EU. The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) concluded that titanium dioxide should not be considered safe as a food additive due to uncertainties around possible inflammation and neurotoxicity leading to cancer cell growth. (See Commission Regulation 2022/63 which amends Annexes II & III to Regulation No 1333/2008 for more information).

Health Risks of Construction Dust - the picture shows a worker sweeping a concrete floor and dust rising

Hazardous Materials in Older Buildings

Demolition of older buildings may release hazardous materials like lead (from lead-based paints and water pipes), asbestos (causing diseases like asbestosis, pleural disease, and lung cancer (Mesothelioma)), and mercury (from gas pressure regulators, boiler heating systems, and thermostats). Other potential health hazards include arsenic and heavy metals like chromium, copper, iron, and manganese, which might have been used in pressure-treated wood​​.

These risks highlight the importance of comprehensive safety measures, including the use of appropriate PPE, risk assessments, and adherence to safety regulations to protect workers from various types of construction dust.

Importance of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

The importance of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is highlighted by the fact that many workers suffering injuries were not wearing PPE. Chris Garland Training’s e-learning course on PPE Awareness underscores the role of PPE in preventing and reducing workplace fatalities, injuries, and diseases. The course covers a wide range of PPE options, the legislation and regulations governing employer and employee responsibilities, and a case study demonstrating the law in action. It is particularly aimed at workers in industries like construction, where the daily use of PPE is required​​.

Necessity of Face Fit Testing for RPE

Face fitting of RPE is crucial to ensure its effectiveness. Our colleagues at 1974 Rapport Ltd state that there are two common methods of face fit testing – the Qualitative and Quantitative methods. The Regulations require that any close-fitting respirator, such as dust masks (e.g., FFP3) or reusable half or full face respirators, must be both adequate and suitable, and the only way to demonstrate this is through a face fit test. Clean-shaven faces are essential for the test’s accuracy, as facial hair can significantly reduce the protection offered by tight-fitting RPE​​. 1974 Rapport offers comprehensive courses, training individuals on how to undertake a qualitative face fit test, ensuring that staff are competent and confident in performing fit testing on a range of RPE​​.

Health Risks of Construction Dust - picture shows a worker with a full face mask about to drill into a wall

Health Surveillance

Regulation 6 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 as amended, states that “every employer shall ensure that his employees are provided with such health surveillance as is appropriate having regard to the risks to their health and safety which are identified by the assessment.” Regulation 7 of the Management Regulations state that “every employer shall, subject to paragraphs 6 and 7, appoint one or more competent persons to assist him in undertaking the measures he needs to take to comply with the requirements and prohibitions opposed upon him by or under the relevant statutory provisions.”

To help you comply with this, the Health and Safety Executive have an entire section within their Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) basic information webpages detailing what an employer must do and advising how they can achieve this. Fundamentally, this breaks down to:

  1. Protecting the health of employees by early detection of adverse changes or disease;
  2. Collecting data for detecting or evaluating health hazards;
  3. Evaluating control measures.

Note that these should not be confused with general health screening or health promotion.

Don’t Risk It

The variety of dusts found in construction environments, ranging from silica dust to wood dust and lower toxicity dusts, pose significant health risks to workers. Exposure to these dusts can lead to serious conditions such as lung cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, skin and eye issues, and in extreme cases, fatal illnesses due to the inhalation of hazardous materials like asbestos and ultrafine particles. The importance of strict adherence to health and safety regulations, including the use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), thorough risk assessments, and proper safety practices, cannot be overstated. These measures are essential to protect workers from the dangers posed by various types of construction dust and to ensure a safe working environment. For comprehensive training and guidance on these safety measures, resources and courses offered by organizations like Chris Garland Training and 1974 Rapport Ltd are invaluable.

Continue your learning journey with:

Additional free resources are available at the Health and Safety Executives Dust Kills campaign website, with the initial findings being available as part of their October 2023 press release.

Health Risks of Construction Dust

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top