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Course 850 - Health Hazards in Construction

Safety guides and audits to make your job as a safety professional easier

Construction Worker Health and Safety

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.

Risk Factors in Construction

Factors that increase the health risk of construction workers include the following components:

  • constantly changing job site environments and conditions
  • multiple contractors and subcontractors
  • high turnover and/or unskilled laborers
  • constantly changing relationships with other work groups
  • diversity of work activities that happen simultaneously
  • exposures to health hazards, both from their own work as well as from nearby activities

Construction Health Hazard Examples

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

Chemical Hazards

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

  • dusts, fumes, and fibers (solids);
  • liquids and mists; and
  • gases and vapors.

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.

Health Effects from Chemical Exposure

There are two types of health effects from chemical exposure.

  • acute
  • chronic

Note: Some chemicals have both acute and chronic effects, such as carbon monoxide.

Acute Effects

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

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.

Asbestos Exposure

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.

Check out this short audio clip by Dan Clark of the that talks about the hazards and solutions related to asbestos exposure.

Welding Fumes


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.


Solvents can

  • irritate your eyes, nose or throat;
  • make you dizzy, sleepy, give you a headache or cause you to pass out;
  • affect your judgment or coordination;
  • cause internal damage to your body; and
  • dry out or irritate your skin.


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.

Compressed Air
brick cutting
Brick Cutting
concrete cutting
Concrete Cutting

Check out this short audio clip by Dan Clark of the Silica dust is common in worksites, can scar the lungs and cause cancer. Symptoms sometimes don’t appear for 10 years.



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:

  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • stomach cramps
  • constipation
  • difficulty in sleeping
  • fatigue
  • moodiness
  • headache
  • joint or muscle aches
  • anemia

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.

Check out this short audio clip by Dan Clark of the that talks about lead hazards and exposure.

confined space

Confined Spaces

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.


Before beginning this quiz, we highly recommend you review the module material. This quiz is designed to allow you to self-check your comprehension of the module content, but only focuses on key concepts and ideas.

Read each question carefully. Select the best answer, even if more than one answer seems possible. When done, click on the "Get Quiz Answers" button. If you do not answer all the questions, you will receive an error message.

Good luck!

1. Which of the following is the most common way chemicals can enter your body on a work site?

2. _____ effects occur immediately following chemical exposure.

3. Which of the following is/are symptoms of acute lead poisoning?

4. In some confined spaces, _____ will cause the person entering to instantly collapse.

5. Solvents can cause which of the following?

Have a great day!

Important! You will receive an "error" message unless all questions are answered.