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Course 850 - Health Hazards in Construction

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

Physical Hazards in Construction

Physical hazards are different types of energy which may be hazardous to construction workers. They include noise, vibration, temperature extremes, and radiation.

This module will take a closer look at these hazards and how to protect yourself.

Noise Hazards

Prolonged exposure to excessive noise levels can cause noise-induced hearing loss. Noise levels above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss.

When you are exposed to excessive noise levels, the first stage is temporary hearing loss. Over time, the hearing loss becomes permanent.

Several factors influence the noise levels that workers are exposed to. For example, the type of equipment being operated, condition and maintenance of the equipment, and enclosed or partially enclosed spaces.

High noise levels can also be sporadic on construction sites. Damage to your hearing is cumulative and exposure limits are based on 8-hour averages. Workers who are not operating equipment are often also exposed to the excessive noise at the site.

Probable Noise Levels of Construction Equipment

Equipment and daily activities at construction job sites can expose workers to high levels of noise. Sound levels on the chart below are listed in decibels (dBA) – the larger the number, the higher the volume or decibel level. How loud the noise is (volume), how long the noise lasts, and how close you are to the noise are all important in determining the hazard.

The table below takes a look at the sound levels of common equipment and tools on a construction site.

Equipment or Tool Noise Level May Exceed (decibels)
Backhoe 85
Bulldozer 87
Chopsaw 92
Grader/Scraper 107
Front End Loader 90
Jackhammer 85
Nail Gun 97
Router 90
Welding Equipment 92
Source: University of Washington Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Service-July 2005.

For more useful information on hearing conservation, please see OSHAcademy course 751 Hearing Conservation Program.

Check out this short audio clip by Dan Clark of the Cement burns and irritations are the #1 occupational skin disease in the U.S. Why is wet cement such a widespread danger? How do workers avoid it? Listen!

Whole Body Vibration


Whole-body vibration can occur from operating large mobile equipment, such as the following:

  • drillers
  • air hammers
  • pile drivers
  • tractors
  • graders
  • excavators
  • earth-moving equipment
  • other large equipment
Hand Vibration
disc grinder

Hand and arm vibration can result from using hand-held power tools, such as pneumatic drills and hammers, and disc grinders.

Hand-arm vibration may cause carpal tunnel syndrome. This is a disease that affects the fingers and hands. In the long run, permanent damage to the nerves will cause a loss of the sense of touch and dexterity.

Working in a cold and damp environment can also aggravate the harmful effects of hand-arm vibration.

Temperature Extremes

A change in body temperatures due to extreme work environmental conditions can lead to stress or illness from heat and cold. If not treated in time, both heat and cold stress can develop into life-threatening situations.

Heavy work in high temperatures can cause muscle cramps, dehydration, sudden collapse, and unconsciousness.

Cold temperatures can lead to fatigue, irregular breathing, confusion, and loss of consciousness (hypothermia).

The table below takes a look at some common heat and cold injuries on a construction site.

Heat Illnesses Cold Illnesses/Injuries
Heat Rash Frost Nip
Fainting Immersion Injury (Trench Foot)
Heat Exhaustion Frostbite
Heat Stroke Hypothermia
Heat Cramps

Hot Working Conditions

hot temps

Hot working conditions can occur in a variety of different instances. For example:

  • prolonged work under direct sunlight in summer (i.e.: asphalt paving or roofing in summer)
  • wearable impermeable protective clothing when doing heavy work
  • working in an enclosed area with a strong heat source, poor ventilation, and high humidity (i.e.: heavy equipment operators in an enclosed cab without sufficient ventilation)

Cold Working Conditions

cold temps

Cold working conditions can also cause problems for construction workers. For example, rain, snow, sleet and other wet and windy conditions can be unbearable for extended periods of time. Below are some other examples of cold conditions:

  • cold air temperatures
  • underground construction work
  • working over water and falling in

Radiation Exposure

Electromagnetic Spectrum.
Click to Enlarge

Any release of radioactive material is a potential source of radiation exposure to the population. In addition to exposure from external sources, radiation exposure can occur internally from ingesting, inhaling, injecting, or absorbing radioactive materials. Both external and internal sources may irradiate the whole body or a portion of the body.

Radiation affects people by depositing energy in body tissue, which can cause cell damage or cell death. In some cases there may be no noticeable effect. In other cases, the cell may survive but become abnormal, either temporarily or permanently. Additionally, an abnormal cell may become malignant. Both large and small doses of radiation can cause cellular damage.

The extent of the damage depends upon the total amount of energy absorbed, the time period and dose rate of the exposure, and the particular organs exposed. By damaging the genetic material (DNA) contained in the body’s cells, radiation can cause cancer. Damage to genetic material in reproductive cells can cause genetic mutations that can be passed on to future generations. In rare occurrences where there is a large amount of radiation exposure, sickness or even death can occur in a limited amount of hours or days.

Ionizing Radiation

Ionizing Radiation
Click to Enlarge

Ionizing radiation is energy in the form of waves or particles that has enough force to remove electrons from atoms. One source of radiation is the nuclei of unstable atoms. As these radioactive atoms seek to become more stable, their nuclei eject or emit alpha and beta particles and high-energy gamma rays and x-rays. This process is known as radioactive decay.

Some radioactive materials, such as radium, uranium, and thorium, have existed since the formation of the earth. The radioactive gas radon is one type of radioactive material produced as these naturally-occurring radioisotopes decay. Human activities, such as the splitting of atoms in a nuclear reactor, can also create radioactive materials.

OSHA regulation 1926.53 references 10 CFR Part 20, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Standards for Protection Against Radiation, for guidance on protecting against occupational radiation exposure.

Employers should take the following precautions when employees are exposed to ionizing radiation:

  • If ionizing radiation sources are used (such as radioactive materials or X-rays), take precautions to protect against radiation exposure.
  • Activities involving ionizing radiation sources should only be performed by competent persons specially trained in the proper and safe operation of such equipment.
Image of welder
Welding produces non-ionizing radiation

Non-Ionizing Radiation

Non-ionizing radiation refers to any type of electromagnetic radiation that does not carry enough energy to ionize atoms or molecules - that is, to completely remove an electron from an atom or molecule.

Non-ionizing radiation includes the spectrum of infrared (IR), microwave (MW), radio frequency (RF), and extremely low frequency (ELF) and ultraviolet (UV). Non-ionizing radiation is found in a wide range of occupational settings and can pose a considerable health risk to potentially exposed workers if not properly controlled, including skin cancer, eye damage, premature skin aging, and burns.


Image of welder
Note the hand and eye protection in use.

Lasers commonly operate in the UV, visible, and IR frequencies. OSHA regulation 1926.54 requires employers to take precautions when exposed to non-ionizing laser energy including:

  • Ensure only qualified and trained persons install, adjust, and operate laser equipment.
  • If lasers are used that have a potential to give reflected light greater than 0.005 watts (5 milliwatts), use antilaser eye-protection devices.
  • Use laser safety glass or goggles that provide sufficient protection for the wavelength of the laser, and have the optical density adequate for the energy involved.
  • Ensure all laser goggles are labeled with the laser wavelengths for which use is intended, the optical density of those wavelengths, and the visible light transmission.
  • If lasers are used, post standard laser warning placards in the area.
  • Prohibit lasers from being used during conditions of rain, snow, dust, or fog.


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. Noise levels above _____ decibels can cause hearing loss.

2. When you are first exposed to excessive noise levels, what is the first problem you may experience?

3. _____ may cause carpal tunnel syndrome.

4. Heavy work in _____ temperatures can cause muscle cramps and sudden collapse.

5. A large amount of radiation exposure can cause death _____.

Have a great day!

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