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Construction’s Most Common Hazardous Substances


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In 2014, nearly 2,000 construction workers suffered from work-related illnesses affecting their skin or lungs, and 100 of them were poisoned. And these are just the cases reported to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Survey of Injuries and Illnesses. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in 2008 that “as much as 69% of injuries and illnesses may never make it into the survey.” So, even if these cases are only under-reported by half, that’s a doubling of the numbers of people affected. 

Hazardous substances come in many forms including gases, vapors, fumes, dusts, and mists and construction jobsites have more than their fair share of these substances. Manufacturers publish material safety data sheets that explain the properties, dangers, and safe working conditions for the potentially hazardous substances they produce. These are often included with product and material specifications for construction projects, and are available from the manufacturers. 

When you assess which controls to use, consider the task, the work area, the amount of time the task takes, and the frequency of the task. 

Databases of hazardous materials are also available from public sources such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Electronic Library of Construction Occupational Safety and Health, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Here are some hazardous materials commonly found or created on construction jobsites that you need to be aware of: 

Solvents

You can find solvents in adhesives, paints, and cleaning fluids. While they are generally thought of as hazardous when inhaled, they are also dangerous when they come into contact with your skin. Solvents come in handy for dissolving grease, oils, and paints, and they also thin out materials like stains. Examples include acetone, alcohol, benzene, esters, ketones, and mineral spirits. 

These substances are dangerous because breathing them, getting them on your skin, and swallowing them not only immediately affect nerves and brain function, but they also get stored in body fat. Whenever you’re working around these materials there is also a greater danger of fire.

Small exposures over a long timeframe are just as harmful as very large one-time exposures. Some of the symptoms of exposure include dizziness, lack of coordination, headache, nausea, stomach pain, cracked or bleeding skin, and irritated eyes, nose, and throat. Solvents can blind you, ruin your internal organs like kidneys and liver, and harm your nervous system. They also cause irregular heartbeats, cancer, and death.

Some solvents are more dangerous because you can’t smell them. Using paper dust masks provides no protection from them and for some of the more dangerous ones, even organic vapor cartridges may not prevent their effects. 

If you are working indoors or in a confined space, such as in a trench, exposure levels can increase very quickly. When dealing with solvents be sure to read the material safety data sheets, keep them away from your skin, wash up before eating, drinking, or smoking, use them only where there is fresh air, and use personal protective equipment where engineering or work practice controls won’t work.

Dust

Dust from construction activities affects more than just the workers. In large enough quantities it affects nearby homes and businesses, and in larger quantities it affects entire communities. Some dusts are dangerous when even a small amount is inhaled while most others can cause lung diseases when inhaled over long periods of time. The primary types of dust found on construction projects are silica dust, wood dust, and lower toxicity dusts.

Silica dust comes from working with materials that contain silica like concrete, mortar, and sandstone. Activities like grinding, sawing, polishing, and cutting, create a very fine type of silica dust that gets deeply lodged in the lungs when inhaled. Lung damage can often happen quickly and can include silicosis, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer.

Whenever you are cutting or sanding wood products such as softwood, hardwood, plywood, OSB, and medium density fiberboard,  you are exposed to wood dust. 

Lower toxicity dusts come from working with materials like drywall, limestone, and marble. Dusts from these sources also have damaging effects on your airways and lungs. The best defense against dust is to control it as you work with materials. You can use engineering and work practice controls such as keeping the material wet as it’s being cut or vacuuming the dust as it comes off the tool. 

When you assess which controls to use, consider the task, the work area, the amount of time the task takes, and the frequency of the task. If the task uses a lot of energy like that generated by grinders and cutoff saws, then there will be a lot of dust created in a very short period of time. 

An enclosed space will allow the dust buildup in greater volumes and more quickly than in outdoor areas. However, on a still day, high-energy tools could very quickly fill even an outdoor space with too much dust. Doing the same kind of dust creating work every day increases your health risks when the dust is not controlled properly.

Other Common Hazards

Another class of hazardous substances almost always present on construction sites are man-made mineral fibers. These fibers are generally made from glass, ceramic, rockwool, and slagwool, and are usually used for temperature and sound insulation. Whenever you install or remove these materials, you are exposed to tiny fibers that can get lodged in your lungs. They are often irritating to the skin and can damage your eyes. Some types of these fibers, particularly the fibers classed as refractory ceramic fibers may require specialized personal protective equipment when working with them.

Mold is also increasingly showing up as a concern on construction sites, especially in remodeling and moisture-trapped buildings. Molds come in many colors, and they can adapt to varying levels of moisture. People exposed to damp conditions and to mold inside buildings sometimes suffer from respiratory symptoms, asthma, allergies, and respiratory infections. Mold can also break down building materials and can release volatile organic compounds.

While many hazardous materials provide advantages for the built environment, there are others that offer only detriments. But, what they all have in common is the need to control exposure to them. Understanding what they are and the hazards they present are the first steps in working safely with them.