Construction work is dynamic, diverse, and constantly changing. This leads to a great challenge in protecting the health and safety of construction workers. They are at risk of exposure to many different types of health hazards that can result in injury, illness, disability, or even death.
Factors that increase the health risk of construction workers include the following components:
The table below takes a closer look at common health hazards in the construction industry.
|Occupations||Potential Health Hazards|
|Brick masons||cement dermatitis, awkward postures, and heavy loads|
|Drywall installers||awkward postures, plaster dust, and heavy loads|
|Electricians||heavy metals in solder fumes, awkward postures, heavy loads, and asbestos|
|Painters||solvent vapors, toxic metals in pigments, and paint additives|
|Carpet layers||knee trauma, awkward postures, glue and glue vapor|
|Insulation workers||asbestos, synthetic fibers, and awkward postures|
|Roofers||roofing tar and heat|
|Carpenters||noise, awkward postures, and repetitive motion|
|Drillers (earth and rock)||silica dust, whole-body vibration, noise|
|Excavating/loading machine operators||silica dust, whole-body vibration, heat stress, and noise|
|Hazardous waste workers||heat stress and toxic chemicals|
Chemicals are found in many products used at construction sites. Workers may be exposed to dangerous chemicals during construction activities. These include asbestos, lead, silica, carbon monoxide and spray paints. The chemicals can exist in several forms, including
These chemicals can enter the body in a variety of different ways. Let’s take a closer look.
Inhalation (breathed in)-Inhalation is generally the most common way chemicals can enter the body in a work situation.
Ingestion-accidental swallowing through eating, drinking, or smoking.
Absorption-absorbed through contact with skin or eyes.
Injection-a chemical enters the body when the skin is punctured.
There are two types of health effects from chemical exposure.
Note: Some chemicals have both acute and chronic effects, such as carbon monoxide.
These types of effects occur immediately or within a short time (minutes or hours) following exposure. Death is possible from some hazardous substances. Exposure to the chemical is typically sudden, short-term, and with a high concentration. For example, if a worker is exposed to carbon monoxide, they may quickly experience a headache, collapse, or even death.
Chronic effects usually develop after continual or repeated exposure to a dangerous chemical. This long-term exposure can sometimes occur over several years. For example, a worker could develop lung cancer from long-term exposure to asbestos.
Construction workers may be exposed to asbestos during demolition or remodeling of older buildings built before 1980. Most of these building contain asbestos insulation, or other asbestos containing products.
Asbestos is well-recognized as a health hazard and is highly regulated. Although asbestos is no longer used as an insulation material, workers may still be exposed to asbestos during demolition or remodeling jobs.
Asbestos may also still be found in some taping compounds, asbestos cement, pipes and floor tiles. Vinyl asbestos floor tiles may be as much as 15% to 20% asbestos, which is released when old flooring is removed.
Asbestos removal can only be done by specially trained asbestos workers. Significant exposure to asbestos can cause breathing problems, lung cancer and cancer of the lung lining many years after exposure.
Welding fumes contain a variety of chemicals depending on what is being welded on, chemical makeup of welding rods, fluxes and shielding gases.
Generally, welding in confined spaces, or welding on stainless steel which generates hexavalent chromium, are the most hazardous welding activities.
A variety of solvents with varying degrees of toxicity are used in construction. They are in paints, glues, epoxies and other products.
Generally, the possibility of exposure to excessive amounts of solvent vapors is greater when solvents are handled in enclosed or confined spaces.
About 2.3 million workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in their workplaces, including 2 million construction workers who drill, cut, crush, or grind silica-containing materials such as concrete and stone, and 300,000 workers in general industry operations such as brick manufacturing, foundries, and hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.
Quartz is the most common form of crystalline silica. In fact, it is the second most common surface material accounting for almost 12% by volume of the earth’s crust. Quartz is present in many materials in the construction industry, such as brick and mortar, concrete, slate, dimensional stone (granite, sandstone), stone aggregate, tile, and sand used for blasting. Other construction materials that contain crystalline silica are asphalt filler, roofing granules, plastic composites, soils, and to a lesser extent, some wallboard joint compounds, paint, plaster, caulking and putty.
Exposure to excessive silica dust causes lung scarring and disease over time. The size of the airborne silica particles determines the amount of risk. Smaller particles can be inhaled deep into the lungs where they can cause damage. Larger particles, such as beach sand, are not as great a concern because they are too large to inhale.
Lead is very toxic and can cause several long-term health problems. Construction workers can be exposed to lead on bridge repair work, lead paint removal on metal structures or buildings or demolition of old buildings with lead paint, or using lead solder.
The frequency and severity of medical symptoms increases with the concentration of lead in the blood. Common symptoms of acute lead poisoning are:
Acute health poisoning from uncontrolled occupational exposures has resulted in fatalities. Chronic overexposure to lead may result in severe damage to the central nervous system and reproductive systems.
Exposure to chemicals or lack of oxygen in confined spaces can be deadly. Airborne chemicals can quickly reach dangerous levels in confined spaces that are not ventilated. Carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, welding fumes and solvent vapors are typical confined space chemical hazards. In some confined spaces, oxygen deficiency will cause the person entering to instantly collapse.
Confined spaces include manholes, sewers, vaults, tanks, and boilers in new construction or in repair and maintenance work.
For more information on confined spaces, please see OSHAcademy course 713 Confined Space Program.
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