Dust and your health

Everyone is exposed to dust in one form or another, and the human body has natural defense mechanisms designed to deal with any dust we breathe in. But in some cases these defenses can be overwhelmed, especially if dust particles are very small or are present in sufficient numbers as is often the case in the construction industry.


How can dust harm me?

Long term exposure to dust can have serious health implications such as respiratory issues and lung damage. Each year there are around 12,000 deaths in the UK from occupational lung diseases, including lung cancer and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Many of these are due to dust inhalation, with dust building up in the lungs and gradually damaging them over time. The HSE estimates 500 construction workers die each year from exposure to silica dust specifically. That’s around ten people each and every week.


What’s in construction dust?

Construction dust is formed from silica dust, wood dust and ‘general’ construction dust.

Silica dust: Silica is a natural substance found in most rocks. It is a major constituent of construction materials such as bricks, tiles, concrete and mortar. It creates a very fine dust known as respirable crystalline silica (RCS) during routine construction process, and it only takes small amounts of this fine silica dust to impact health. Sadly the diseases it causes, such as silicosis, are usually irreversible. Illnesses linked to silica may show up quickly or may not be detected for many years after exposure, sometimes more than a decade. Silica dust is the biggest risk to construction workers after asbestos.

Wood dust: There are two types of wood dust, hard wood dust and soft wood dust, but both are equally harmful. Wood dust is created when machines and tools are used to cut or shape wood. The main health issue linked to wood dust is asthma, which carpenters and joiners are four times more likely to suffer from than other UK workers. Wood dust is known to be carcinogenic, often linked to cancer of the nose, and can also cause skin problems such as dermatitis.

‘General’ construction dust: General dust is generated from building materials that contain little or no silica, for example gypsum in plasterboard. It isn’t as dangerous as silica or wood dust but still has associated health risks including respiratory diseases and dermatitis.

How to control dust exposure

Avoiding breathing in dust isn’t easy on construction sites, where activities such as cutting, sanding or grinding of a variety of different materials are routine. Inhaling even small quantities can be harmful, so dust must be properly managed and controlled within the construction environment.

A common solution for avoiding dust inhalation is to use respiratory protective equipment (RPE), most commonly a FFP3-rated dust mask. But this is not a suitable control measure on its own. In fact using RPE is the least effective control and various other methods should be considered first.

A more proactive approach is to minimise the dust created. You can do this by ordering materials that are pre-cut to the right size to avoid having to cut them on site, or supplementing materials for alternatives that contain lower volumes of harmful substances such as silica. Using different tools or working methods that create less dust is also an option.

Once the volume of construction dust is minimised, you can look at ways to prevent the dust that is created from becoming airborne. These include on-tool extraction which removes dust as it is produced, water suppression which dampens down dust clouds, and various forms of mechanical ventilation. These controls are far more effective than RPE, which ultimately just provides a last line of defense.


We know the controls, so why isn’t dust controlled on site?

Inadequate dust control is something we see frequently during inspections across Contractors and Principal Contractors of all sizes and risk profiles. In fact, one third of all Havio inspections note respirable dust is inadequately controlled on site.

So why is there still such a big problem with dust in the construction industry? The answer lies in health and safety culture. Time and again we hear “I’m just cutting the odd piece of wood without a dust mask because it’s only a two-second job.” Well that one-off cut on its own may not affect your health but over a 20 to 30-year career in the construction industry all those one-off cuts add up to a huge volume of harmful dust slowly building up in the lungs.

Construction workers don’t need to be told to do something because it’s the rule. They need to be educated on the health impact of dust and the potentially fatal problems it can cause later in life. This isn’t just the employer’s responsibility. Yes, employers have a duty to protect the health and safety of their employees, but so does every individual worker. Examples must be set at management level and by more experienced operatives within the industry.

Education and management of dust is a huge challenge but, if done right, some might argue it could be the most effective measure to improve health and safety within the construction industry.


Published by Lee De Rosa, Health & Safety Advisor


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