Where are the hazards?
A broad range of construction activities like:
- cutting kerbstones
- surface grinding
- screening demolition material
- clearing and removing rubble
- chasing out mortar before repointing
- laying epoxy floors and carpentry
can create a risk of exposure to hazardous substances that can damage the lungs when breathed in and cause lung disease if not properly controlled.
What are the risks?
The most prevalent diseases in construction are asbestos-related diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, lung cancer and silicosis.
Mesothelioma is a cancer that affects the lining of the lungs (pleura) and the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract (peritoneum). It is almost exclusively related to asbestos exposure and, by the time it is diagnosed, it is almost always fatal.
Asbestos-related lung cancer
Asbestos-related lung cancer is the same as (looks the same as) lung cancer caused by smoking and other causes. It is estimated that there is around one lung cancer for every mesothelioma death.
Asbestosis is a serious scarring condition of the lung that normally occurs after heavy exposure to asbestos over many years. This condition can cause progressive shortness of breath, and in severe cases can be fatal.
Pleural thickening is generally a problem that happens after heavy asbestos exposure. The lining of the lung (pleura) thickens and swells. If this gets worse, the lung itself can be squeezed and can cause shortness of breath and discomfort in the chest.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
COPD is an obstruction of the airway that is not fully reversible. The condition is usually progressive and is associated with inflammatory responses of the lungs to hazardous substances.
Causes - exposure to harmful dust, fume and gases at work can contribute to the development of the disease.
Symptoms - include a chronic cough, sputum production and shortness of breath.
Construction workers have higher levels of this disease than the general population.
Occupational asthma is an allergic reaction some people experience when they are exposed to substances in the workplace, eg wood dust.
These substances are called ‘respiratory sensitisers’ or asthmagens. They can cause a ‘hypersensitive state’ in the airways of those affected.
Not everyone who becomes sensitised goes on to develop asthma, but once the lungs become hypersensitive, further exposure to the substance, even at quite low levels, may trigger an attack.
Work-related asthma can be triggered by exposure to substances in the workplace. People with asthma are more likely to be sensitive to these respiratory sensitisers.
Silicosis is an irreversible lung disease that can take years to develop.
Causes - Fine particles of respirable crystalline silica (RCS) cause damage and inflammation in the lungs. Over time, this leads to the formation of scar tissue (fibrosis), which shows up on chest X-rays.
Symptoms - Breathing difficulties and a chronic cough which may not appear before retirement. Silicosis can be extremely disabling and lead to early death.
Construction workers have an increased risk of developing silicosis because of exposure to high levels of silica dust during certain tasks.
If high-speed cutting tools are used on high-silica-content materials without suitable controls, RCS exposures can be very high. Exposures to freshly cut surfaces of RCS occur in many construction tasks such as cutting, blasting, drilling and grinding.
The RCS hazard is present whether the parent material is granite, sandstone, slate, or a manufactured product such as brick or concrete.
How to control
If you are likely to be working with asbestos in construction there is specific help and guidance available: Construction - Asbestos removal industry health & safety
Construction health risks
The construction health risks site shows how to manage the health risks associated with working in construction.
- Confined spaces: A brief guide to working safely
- Control of exposure to silica dust: A guide for employees
- Health surveillance for those exposed to respirable crystalline silica (RCS)