The Dangers of Construction Dust
Exposure to construction dust can pose a significant health hazard to those working in the construction industry. According to recent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) research, it has been estimated that silica dust could be responsible for the deaths of over 500 people who have worked in construction each year, which is why it is so important to raise awareness of this particular danger and how this risk can be mitigated.
What is construction dust?
Construction dust is a general term used to describe the different types of dust that are likely to be found on a construction site. There are three main types, all of which can be dangerous to health.
- Wood dust – Wood dust is generated when working with hardwood, softwood and other wood-based materials such as plywood and MDF. Wood dust is a carcinogen that can cause asthma and even cancer. Hardwood dust and formaldehyde (the gas used in pressed wood) are proven cancer-causing agents, and hardwood dust has also been linked to a rare kind of nasal cancer.
- Silica dust – Silica dust, also known as RCS (respirable crystalline silica) is produced when working with materials such as concrete, bricks, rocks, sandstone and mortar. Silica dust is so fine that it can’t be seen with the naked eye, but it can penetrate the lungs deeply and damage the lung tissue. This issue can lead to debilitating or fatal respiratory diseases.
- Low toxicity dust – Low toxicity dust is generated when working on materials that contain very little-to-no silica. The most common materials include limestone, dolomite and gypsum which can be found in plasterboard.
Why dust is harmful to your health?
Most of the time dust particles are so fine that you can’t see them, but this makes it easy for them to be inhaled. Once the particles have been inhaled, they become embedded in the lung tissue, which can cause significant respiratory problems, as well as problems in other areas of the body.
The serious effects of construction dust can vary dramatically from skin irritation to lung cancer. The level of damage often depends on the dust type, the degree of exposure and the composition of the construction dust.
The primary dust-related diseases that can affect construction workers who do not take precautions when working in areas where construction dust is present are:
- Lung cancer
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
How is construction dust generated?
Construction dust can be produced by different tasks on site. High dust levels can be caused by one or more of the following tasks.
- Equipment – Using high powered tools, such as cut off saws, wall chasers, grit blasters and grinders can produce a lot of dust in a short amount of time
- Work method – Dry sweeping can aggravate lots of dust in comparison to wet brushing and vacuuming.
- Work area – The smaller and more enclosed a space, the more the dust will start to build up. This can be even worse if the space does not have any ventilation or windows.
- Time – The longer the work continues in one area, the more the dust will build up
Prevention & RPE:
When working in construction, you should consider ways to limit the amount of dust you could make before you start working, and ensure you are fully equipped in line with the relevant legislation that controls working in hazardous environments.
For example, you could:
- Use the correct size building materials to start with, so less trimming or cutting of materials is needed.
- Use a less powerful tool where possible, such as a block splinter instead of a cut-off saw.
- Use water to dampen down dust clouds. Be mindful that this method needs to be used correctly to be effective.
- Use an industrial vacuum extractor that has been specifically designed to fit tools. This extracts the majority of the dust produced and stores it until it is emptied. When emptying an extractor, make sure it is in controlled conditions as this will agitate some of the dust collected into the air.
- Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) can also be used as an addition, not an alternative to the control and the reduction of construction dust. RPE is the last line of protection when it comes to preventing construction dust.
Face fit testing is required to guarantee proper protection, and those wearing a tight-fitting mast must be clean shaven. Face fit training courses focus on the correct selection and use of RPE for those working in environments where it is required.
There are also a range of CITB courses that can help those working on a construction site understand more about the dangers of dust and how to control it. Below are some courses that teach delegates how to understand the importance of managing exposure to dust as well as other substances.