On construction sites, it can be easy to overlook a less noticeable hazard such as dust, for something much more tangible like scaffolding or machinery. Yet around 12,000 people die every year from occupational respiratory diseases—many more than the number of fatalities from work-related accidents.

Why Such High Statistics?

Dust is everywhere on construction sites as a result of various activities, from cutting and sanding materials to excavation, drilling, and demolition. It’s an impossible substance to avoid. But while the stats remain high, it is an unnecessary risk to health that should be effectively managed on every construction site.

And it’s important to note that some types of dust are worse than others.

For example, ongoing inhalation or ingestion of fibrous dust and silica dust—generated from materials such as granite, concrete, and sandstone, or disturbing asbestos-containing materials—can cause potentially fatal illnesses such as lung cancer and other serious respiratory diseases (learn more about Construction Workers and Asbestos Exposure).

Other dusts—generated from wood, plasterboard, or limestone—have lower toxicity levels. So, although with continual exposure they will cause damage to health, the life-threatening risks are lower.

There’s no doubting that the body is an incredible machine. It works hard on a daily basis to expel from its system foreign particles that have been inhaled or ingested via food, drink. or simply by licking one’s fingers. But, sadly, it’s not infallible.

Harms from Exposure to Construction Dust

Foreign particles that get past the body’s defenses can settle in the lung tissues where they stay indefinitely.

For those who are exposed to dust regularly, as is the case for most workers in the construction industry, this settlement of particles builds up. This is why the risk from dust is high. Moreover, it can often take years for the effects of dust exposure to show, by which time it can be too late to do anything about it.

The results of exposure to dust can be broken down into five categories:

  • Respiratory cancers
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Pneumoconiosis
  • Non-cancerous respiratory diseases
  • Occupational asthma (learn more in Work-Related Asthma: Breathe Easier)

Life-threatening, respiratory cancers include lung cancer and a cancer of mesothelial tissue (mesothelioma), which is associated with exposure to asbestos. And, according to the HSE, it’s estimated that as many as 20 tradespeople a week could be dying from asbestos damage to their lungs (see Asbestos: Frequently Asked Questions to learn more).

COPD, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, is a disease that reduces the size of the airways. It has no cure. There are an estimated 4,000 work-related COPD deaths in Great Britain each year.

Pneumoconiosis is a disease that tends to go unnoticed for years. It’s caused by exposure to dusts, such as asbestos and silica. And while it has declined in recent years, with lax health standards on some construction sites, it is still a definite risk.

The last two health-risk categories may not have the same impact as the first three, but that doesn’t mean they should be taken any less seriously. Any respiratory disease, including asthma, will have a huge impact on quality of life, affecting everything from carrying out menial tasks to playing in the park with the kids. And the latest HSE information shows that there are around 10,000 new cases of work-related respiratory problems each year.

But it can be avoided.

How Can the Risk on Construction Sites Be Minimized?

Minimizing health risks comes down to ensuring you have (and use) the right equipment.

The two most common effective ways to reduce the risk of dust when performing standard tasks on construction sites are:

Water dampening is an effective method, but it can be difficult to manage. It requires the site to be thoroughly soaked prior to beginning work, and a constant flow of water to be maintained during the entire task to prevent dust particles becoming airborne. Therefore, having a sufficient supply of water and access to it are crucial elements.

The second method for reducing the risk of dust permeating the air is using specialist extraction and filtration units. With the right dust extraction and filtration systems in place, along with barriers and enclosures, construction dust can be efficiently managed and contained.

This latter method greatly reduces the risk of over-exposure for site personnel, and can cut potential clean-up costs that may occur when carrying out works adjacent to sensitive surroundings.

Summary

Protecting the health of construction site personnel is paramount to reduce the number of people affected by occupational respiratory diseases each year. And remember, it’s easily overcome—simply have the right risk assessments in place and use the right equipment to create a safer, cleaner environment for everyone.