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Top Five Occupational Exposure Risks in Construction


You may think that Construction as an industry is generally dangerous, and you’d be right, especially if those involved in projects are not suitably trained, don’t have the right personal protective equipment, and are not fully aware of relevant exposure risks.

Some other factors that wouldn’t initially spring to mind when it comes to being harmful in a construction environment are noise, dust, exhaust emissions, lead and crystalline silica.

Here is an overview of why the aforementioned could cause harm, illness or in the worst, most prolonged cases death.

1. General Dust Levels

Construction dust is not just a nuisance - it can seriously damage your health and some types can eventually even kill. Regularly breathing these dust particles over a long time can therefore cause life-changing lung diseases.

Every year, thousands of workers are made ill by exposure to dust within the workplace, this results in an increase of lung diseases such as Asthma, COPD and Cancer.

Most construction dusts contain particles of a wide range of sizes. The behaviour, deposition and fate of any particle on entry into the human respiratory system and the body response that it provokes, depend on the nature and size of the particle.

There are three main types of construction dust:

  1. Silica dust – created when working on silica containing materials like concrete, mortar and sandstone (also known as respirable crystalline silica or RCS)
  2. Wood dust – created when working on softwood, hardwood and wood-based products like MDF and plywood
  3. Lower toxicity dusts – created when working on materials containing very little or no silica. The most common include gypsum (eg in plasterboard), limestone, marble and dolomite.

The COSHH definition of a substance hazardous to health includes dust of any kind when present at a concentration in air equal to or greater than 10 mg/m3 8-hour TWA of inhalable dust or 4 mg/m3 8-hour TWA of respirable dust.

Silica and wood dusts have a much lower exposure concentration levels.

2. Noise

According to The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) more than 1million employees in the UK are exposed to levels of noise that could put their hearing at risk. With the increasing claims culture in the UK, it is essential that organisations comply with the control of noise regulations.

Over 170,000 people in the UK suffer from deafness, tinnitus and other ear conditions because of exposure to noise within the workplace.

The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 places a duty on employers to ensure that noise exposure levels are reduced to meet the current exposure limits and a specific requirement is placed on employers to ensure health surveillance is conducted.

The aim of the Noise Regulations is to ensure that workers' hearing is protected from excessive noise at their place of work, which could cause them to lose their hearing and/or to suffer from permanent ringing in the ears.

Employers are responsible for conducting risk assessments of the various noise generating activities within a construction environment.

Suitable hearing protection can then be selected for each activity, a common mistake is to over protect which can lead to other safety issues.

The level at which employers must enforce hearing protection zones is now 85 decibels (daily or weekly average exposure) and the level at which employers must assess the risk to workers' health and provide them with hearing protection is now 80 decibels.

3. Diesel Engine Exhaust Emissions (DEEE)

The major source of DEEEs workplace exposure in relation to the construction industry is from heavy vehicles that use diesel fuel such as lorries and working at height platforms but in this industry smaller, stationery outlets are also used such as generators and chainsaws.

All construction workers will be exposed to DEEEs at some point in a project but its those that are exposed in confined spaces that will inhale more fumes.

It is not precisely known which components of combustion are responsible for ill health, but exposure to DEEEs is associated with irritation of the eyes and the respiratory tract. This is particularly noticeable when there are high levels of white smoke in the workplace. Irritation of the upper respiratory tract is the primary health effect following exposure to DEEEs.

Prolonged exposure to DEEEs - to any blue or black smoke, could lead to coughing, increased mucus production and breathlessness.

A typical exhaust emission contains a range of toxic chemicals (Formaldehyde, Benzene, Xylene, Carbon Monoxide, Nitrogen Dioxide) that can lead to long term illness.

4. Old Lead Paint

Breathing or ingesting lead dust or fumes can cause serious problems like kidney, nerve and brain damage or infertility. You are most at risk if you regularly do common jobs like removing existing paint coatings in properties that were built before the 1980, stripping old paint using blow lamps or gas torches and dry sanding old paint.

Things to remember when heading to a restoration, building project where paint is involved:

  1. Lead pigments were widely used in paints for homes, schools and offices until the 1960s
  2. Lead pigments were not removed from commonly used paints until the early 1980s.
  3. Lead paint can be found under existing paintwork in older buildings.

The control of lead at work regulations stipulates employees must not be exposed to the airborne WEL levels exceeding 0.15mg/m³ and where exposures occur within 50% of this WEL specific controls must be implemented.

5. Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS)

Construction workers have a high risk of developing lung diseases because many common tasks can create high dust levels. Over 500 construction workers are believed to die from exposure to silica dust every year. The amounts needed to cause this damage are not large. (100 x less than the general dust exposure limits).

Silica is a natural substance found in most rocks, sand and clay and in products such as bricks and concrete. Silica is also used as filler in some plastics. In the workplace these materials create dust when they are cut, sanded, carved etc. Some of this dust may be fine enough to breathe deeply into your lungs and cause harm to your health. The fine dust is called respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS) and is too fine to see with normal lighting.

Those working with construction and demolition processes with concrete, stone, brick or mortar are at higher risks than many other industries.

Certain activities create dust containing RCS, such as:

Grinding, drilling, cutting, sanding, chiseling, blasting, polishing, conveying, fettling, mixing and handling, shoveling dry material, rock drilling/breaking/crushing/screening.

On construction sites, the following can lead to exposure:

  • Leaks or spillages cause a build-up of dust containing RCS
  • Dust containing RCS is not cleaned up safely, eg by dry sweeping rather than wet cleaning
  • Clothing and surfaces are contaminated with dust containing RCS
  • Accumulated dust containing RCS is ‘raised’ from the ground or other surfaces by vehicles and people
  • Fine dusts remain in the air from work activities.

Contact Euro Environmental today to see how we can help you assess the risk and protect you and your employees. Call 0870 7019170 or email:


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