Workers in the construction industry develop certain types of cancer at higher rates than the general population. While the word “cancer” creates a visceral response of fear in anyone who hears it, there are ways of decreasing the risk of cancers that are more prevalent in construction than many other industries.
Cancer Types and Occupational Exposure Rates
According to an article published by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 32% of the construction workers surveyed in 2004 reported they were exposed to vapors and fumes at least half of their time at work1. Prolonged exposure to certain chemicals and materials can result in lung damage, which may lead to silicosis, asbestosis, and lung cancer.
32% of the construction workers surveyed reported they were exposed to vapors and fumes at least half of their time at work.
In fact, OSHA has deemed the risk of asbestos-related disease in construction to be high, impacting construction laborers, painters, roofers, drywall installers, and tile installers. While asbestos is not the only construction material that creates critical illness, it is by far the most ubiquitous and troublesome. It is the only confirmed cause of mesothelioma, an aggressive but rare cancer that can appear decades after exposure.
Skin cancer is the second most commonly found cancer in construction work. One in forty Americans is diagnosed every year with melanoma, a skin cancer caused by sun exposure.
Results from two studies in Montreal2 confirmed the relationship between lung cancer and asbestos or silica. Other organic and inorganic compounds found in paints, roofing materials, and diesel exhaust also raise the risk of this disease.
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer affecting the lining around the inner organs of the chest and abdomen. It is closely tied to asbestos exposure and, once diagnosed, the prognosis is extremely poor. The heaviest exposures tend to occur during renovations of structures built before the 1990s where asbestos is prevalent. Clouds of asbestos dust can permeate the air breathed by construction workers.
Clouds of asbestos dust can permeate the air breathed by construction workers.
The increase in health issues has led renovators to avoid asbestos removal in favor of leaving undamaged material in place.
No matter the color of the skin, exposing unprotected skin to the sun can result in a type of skin cancer called melanoma. The danger of skin cancer is underestimated by many who do not understand that the disease is not limited to the outer layers of skin but continues to spread to other areas of the body.
While melanoma is not the most common of skin cancer, it does cause the most deaths.
Prevention and Reporting
Lung cancer and mesothelioma prevention rely on personal protective equipment in addition to engineering and work practice controls.
Local exhaust ventilation (LEV)
Masks, respirators, and other PPE
OSHA requires employers to administer a medical questionnaire to all employees who are exposed to asbestos above the permissible exposure limits and who will be included in the employer’s surveillance program.
Employers are also required to develop programs to enhance hazard awareness and include risk assessments to determine the overall threat of exposure to the most common causes of lung cancer and other illnesses in construction workers.
The risk of melanoma and other skin cancers that are caused by exposure to solar radiation can be mitigated by protecting the skin with SPF 30+ sunscreen, clothing, or other shade equipment. Since 1992, OSHA has stated that employers have a duty to protect workers exposed to the sun on the job and risk serious physical harm or death.
Construction workers are at increased risk for lung cancer, mesothelioma, and melanoma, in comparison with the general population. Exposure to asbestos, organic and inorganic compounds, and solar radiation are all hazards of the job.
Construction workers are at increased risk for lung cancer, mesothelioma, and melanoma, in comparison with the general population.
All employers are required by OSHA and other regulatory bodies to develop hazard awareness training and risk assessment processes to educate their employees about cancer risks. Employers should also use engineering and work practice controls in conjunction with personal protective equipment requirements to decrease cancer risks within the industry.
1Musculoskeletal disorders in construction, E-fact 1, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 2004.
2Lacourt et al. BMC Public Health (2015) 15:941 DOI 10.1186/s12889-015-2237-9
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