Health in Construction

A couple of weeks ago I travelled down to Birmngham to give a talk on behalf of the BOHS Breathe Freely initiative at the Health and Wellbeing event at the NEC. The Title of the talk was Managing Health in Construction – What Good Looks Like. An annotated version of the slides I used during the talk are now available on Slideshare

To prepare for the talk I did a little research on the meaures that are readily available to control exposure to contaminants, particularly dust, during common activities on construction sites. A number of studies have been done, both on-site and in the laboratory to assess the effectiveness of water supression and on-tool extraction for power tools. These studies have confirmed just how they can be.

For example

  • A large scale study in Ireland by Healy et al showed that the use of local extraction built into on-tool shrouds could reduce dust exposures by up to 99%
  • Laboratory tests by Thorpe et al showed water suppression on cut-off saws reduced dust levels by up to 99%

Despite this, in a large proportion of cases these engineering controls are not being used with reliance placed on respiratory protection which is often incorrectly used and inadequately managed. So one of the main aims of the BOHS Breathe Freely initiative is to raise awareness of the types of controls that can be used to reduce exposure. Hopefully in the not too distant future we’ll see water supression and on-tool extraction become the norm rather than the exception.



Measurements of the E€ectiveness of Dust Control on Cut-off€ Saws Used in the Construction Industry. Thorpe et al. Ann Occup Hyg Vol. 43, No. 7, pp. 443-456, 1999

An Evaluation of On-Tool Shrouds for Controlling Respirable Crystalline Silica in Restoration Stone Work.  Healy et al. Ann Occup Hyg 2014;58:1155-1167


Silica exposure in the construction industry

One of the most important health risks encountered by construction workers is exposure to respirable crystalline silica dust. Crystalline silica, mainly in the form of quartz, is the main component of most rocks, sands and clays. In the construction industry it can be found in  stone, concrete, aggregates, mortars and other materials.

Respirable particles (smaller than 10 microns in diameter) of crystalline silica,  which are produced during many common activities such as cutting, blasting or drilling granite, sandstone, slate, brick or concrete, penetrate deep down into the lungs where they can cause serious damage. Regular, repeated exposure to respirable crystalline silica can lead to silicosis, a debilitating lung disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders (COPD) and lung cancer. It usually takes many years of exposure to silica dust before these symptoms start.

A couple of weeks ago I was giving a talk to a meeting of safety consultants on the BOHS breathefreely initative and decided to include some discussion on silica exposures in the industry. Unfortunatly no major study has been carried out in the UK. However, there are several detailed papers on exposures in the industry in some comparable countries in the Annals of Occupational Hygiene and other journals, so I was able to include some figures in my talk.

The research has shown that many of the common activities undertaken in the construction industy lead to exposures well in excess of the UK Workplace Exposure Linit of 0.1 mg/m3 for respirable silica – and this isn’t a “safe limit” with an estimated 2.5% of workers exposed to this concentration for only 15 years developing silicosis. Yet for most of the common operations where workers are at risk from exposure to silica, there are control measures available that are usually relatively straight forward to implement.

Breathe Freely

On the evening of 28 April, Workers’ Memorial Day, the Breathe Freely initiative, which aims to raise awareness of respiratory disease in the construction industry, was launched at a reception at the Merchant Taylor’s Hall in London. The room was packed with 140 people, mainly representatives from the Construction industry.


Breathe Freely is a collaborative initiative led by BOHS in partnership with key organisations within the construction industry. It will provide guidance, tools and resources that facilitate the recognition, evaluation and control of workplace exposures leading to the implementation of a recognised management standard. The aim is not just to raise awareness of the problem but also to effect action by providing practical solutions through sharing of best practice and encouraging implementation of effective exposure control.

Exposure to hazardous substances that can cause respiratory disease is a serious, but often unappreciated, risk for construction workers. However, the number of workers affected can be reduced dramatically if employers adopt good practice and introduce appropriate, cost effective, control measures.  The BOHS led Breathe Freely campaign will be a major step forward in highlighting both the risks and, very importantly, the measures that can be used to minimise them. Diamond Environmental is proud to be a supporter of the initiative

Health and Construction

construction site 2

On Monday this week a worker on a construction site in central London, a former US naval building in Grosvenor Square, died after the building he was working on partially collapsed. At least one other person had to be treated treated for minor injuries.

Accidents on construction sites are all too common. In the period 2012/3 148 people were killed as a result of an accident at work. 39 of these worked in the construction industry. According to statistics from the Health and Safety Executive, although it accounts for only about 5% of the employees in Britain the industry accounts for 27% of fatal injuries to employees and 10% of reported major injuries.

The incident on Monday was a tragic accident that made the headlines. But there are other hazards faced by construction workers that don’t appear in the news. Construction workers can be exposed to various hazardous agents that can have a major impact on their health, the most important including

  • asbestos – although no longer used in Europe it can be present in older buildings and workers can be exposed to asbestos containing dust during refurbishment and demolition work
  • respirable crystalline silica – present in many materials used in construction of buildings
  • diesel exhaust emissions – diesel powered vehicles and equipment are commonly used on construction sites


According to the HSE exposure to these agents has resulted in

  • About 3 700 occupational cancer cases are estimated to arise each year as a result of past exposures in the construction sector;
  • There were an estimated 74 thousand total cases and 31 thousand new cases of work-related ill health during 2012/13
  • over 500 construction workers are believed to die from exposure to silica dust every year.

Construction workers can also be exposed to other chemicals, such as solvents which are present in paints, adhesives and other products. And they can be exposed to physical hazards such as noise, vibration and solar radiation.

The health effects from all these agents don’t appear over night. They are long term, sometimes only appearing many years after first exposure. So it’s easy to ignore them – but they are responsible for considerable more deaths than accidents at work. An article in the Observer last Sunday reported that last year there were 2,500 deaths due to asbestos exposure, 500 due to respirable crystalline silica exposure and 200 from diesel exhaust emissions. So 3,200 deaths due to exposure to hazardous substances compared to 39 due to accidents. A ratio of more than 80 to 1.

And it’s not just about fatalities. Occupational disease also affect quality of life. The HSE has estimated that averaged over the period 2009/10 to 2011/12 74,000 people whose current or most recent job in the last year was in construction, suffered from an illness (longstanding and new cases) which was caused or made worse by this job.

It’s important that employers make strenuous efforts to ensure the safety of their employees while working on construction sites to prevent tragedies like the accident that occurred last Monday. But, in addition, more attention needs to be paid to those health risks.