Construction workers face some of the greatest occupational risks for exposure to respiratory diseases. Many of these exposures can lead to debilitating and even lethal conditions. Some exposures are so severe that they can cause immediate health consequences, such as asphyxiation or tracheal burns.
Common Respiratory Risks in Construction
Employers are responsible for assessing the potential hazards of their project or site and responding according to OSHA-mandated protocols. These protocols include providing the right personal protective equipment (PPE), like respirators, assessing site conditions regularly with testing and taking measures to mitigate exposures, such as providing ventilation or limiting exposure durations. Furthermore, employers are responsible for training workers on the potential dangers of exposure and the proper use of any PPE necessary to carry out their work.
What follows is a summary of the common respiratory risks that could be encountered during the course of construction duties along with some typical means of mitigating the risks. However, the list is far from comprehensive. Employers must exercise due diligence in order to reduce risk to their workers and identify any potential hazards they could face.
Silicosis and PM Exposure
Silicosis is a condition caused by the inhaling of silica crystalline dust found in many types of rock material. Drilling, sandblasting, grinding and certain types of materials installation can all potentially expose workers to silica dust. In particular, cutting into engineered countertop materials has a high-risk of ejecting silica dust into the air.
Preventing silicosis involves minimizing exposure to silica dust through well-ventilated conditions or vacuum-equipped tools. PPE respirators are considered a “last line of defense,” and can either be the dust mask filtration style or the cartridge style. Look for product models or cartridges specifically made for removing silica dust from the air.
Note that some exposures to small particulate matter (PM) like concrete dust could exhibit similar symptoms, and may even develop into a chronic condition. Lead dust and organic particles like mold sometimes uncovered during demolition are of a particular concern.
Chemical Inhalant Exposure
Chemical sprays, mists, vapors, fumes, propellants and other substances could present inhalation risks for construction workers. Individuals applying spray coatings, varnishes, “stripping” chemicals or other similar work are all at risk of health conditions such as lung tissue damage from direct exposure to inhaled chemicals.
Air-purifying respirators that use a disposable cartridge are an effective means of removing dangerous airborne chemicals from workers’ air as they breathe. A table of color-coded cartridge types corresponding to the relevant hazards can be found halfway down this OSHA informational page. Workers must be fitted and trained for such PPE, and factors like facial hair can reduce the effectiveness of the respirator.
Mesothelioma and Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos materials were widely-used before the discovery that their microscopic fibers became embedded in lung tissues upon inhalation. Asthmatic or emphysema-like symptoms can result at first, with cancerous tissue growth known as mesothelioma emerging as a secondary chronic condition. PPE has been developed for asbestos exposure risks, but extensive training and other preventative measures are needed to reduce the chance of repeated secondary exposures to adhering asbestos fibers.
Confined spaces and other low-oxygen environments can cause individuals to lose consciousness and possibly suffocate. While air-purifying respirators can remove asphyxiating agents like carbon monoxide, they cannot provide oxygen in turn. Respirators equipped with an oxygen source must be used under these conditions. OSHA has recently released new construction standards for confined spaces that could help save workers’ lives.
Due Diligence to Prevent Respiratory Diseases
Unfortunately, there is no one page-length “cheat sheet” that can help employers anticipate all of the potential respiratory hazards that could be present at their job site. They have an obligation to educate themselves about the potential hazards and to respond with appropriate safety measures. Hiring safety consultants can allow them to more-ably identify and respond to potential safety hazards.
In the meantime, they can refer to resources like NIOSH’s Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards to begin the process of risk identification. They should also consult their insurance polices to see how chemical exposures relate to their statement of benefits and ensure that they are financially protected in the event of an exposure incident.