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27th April 2017

Construction industry and exposure to dust

Exposure to dust is a hot topic in the construction industry. Repeated and prolonged exposure can lead to various health complications including lung cancer, asthma and various chronic conditions affecting breathing capacity.

Symptoms can take years to develop and, due to medical advancements, we are only just starting to be able to associate conditions with an individual’s previous working conditions. As a result, along with a strong focus on exposure prevention from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), the construction industry is more aware than ever of their obligations to employees.

What types of dust are hazardous?

It’s been scientifically proven that all dusts can cause health problems. The HSE publish maximum safe levels of exposure – Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs) – for average exposure over an eight hour period.

These WELs include:
• Inhalable dust: 10 mg/m³
• Respirable dust: 4mg/m³
• Wood dust: 5mg/m³
• Respirable crystalline silica (RCS): 0.1mg/m³

The low WEL for silica represent the HSE’s level of concern on exposure to it, with many believing RCS to be as dangerous as asbestos when inhaled. Considering that RCS is commonly found in sandstone, mortar, concrete, tiles and bricks; exposure is a serious threat to those working in construction. It is estimated that over 500 construction workers die each year from lung cancer, fibroses and other diseases caused by historic exposure to RCS.

So what must employers do?

When scrutinised, employers need to be able to demonstrate that exposure to dust is adequately controlled and that employees are exposed to dust levels below the WELs in place.

Step one:

Assess the risk. This can be done either by obtaining specific measurements for dust in the air, or by using typical figures from a relevant trade association.

Step two:

Find effective methods to reduce the amounts of dust within the workplace. This may involve using different materials, extraction systems, dust suppression systems, enhancing ventilation and undertaking certain processes away from site e.g. stone cutting.

Step three:

Provide respiratory protection – often in the form of dust masks. These masks must be suitable for the individual involved and so it is recommended that Face-Fit testing be undertaken ensuring a secure fit.

Step four:

Make all staff aware of the risks so that they understand why they are being asked to wear a mask. They should also be briefed on how to clean and maintain their masks to ensure it continues to work effectively.

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