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Construction dust: an ever-present risk

It is estimated that there are currently approximately 12,000 deaths each year in the UK due to occupational respiratory diseases, including cancers, asthma, COPD, allergies and sensitisation, and silicosis, and many of these will be attributable to construction dust. The health problems associated with breathing in construction dusts can be slow to manifest, but are often debilitating or even fatal. Even short durations of exposure can add up over years of construction work, so it is vital that all exposure is carefully managed and workers are protected from breathing in any potentially harmful dusts.

The HSE has identified three main types of construction dust:

Silica dust: Respirable Crystalline Silica, or RCS, is very fine silica dust often released during the cutting, drilling and grinding of materials like sand, sandstone and granite, as well as concrete and mortar.

Wood dust: Working with wood or wood-based products, such as MDF and chipboard, is a common task on construction sites, but the dust produced can be harmful.

Non-silica dust: Something of a catch-all for other dusts found in construction, this can be produced when working with products such as gypsum (in plasterboard), cement, limestone and marble.

 

Avoiding exposure to the unavoidable

All too often, dusty work in construction is unavoidable. However, there are several simple ways in which a construction workers’ exposure to it can be limited:

Training

Before the work, training can ensure that workers understand the risks of exposure to construction dust and the appropriate controls to protect themselves and their colleagues. Methods of working can be adapted to reduce the levels of dust created, including using different materials or different types of tools.

Control measures

During the work, control measures such as on-tool extraction and water suppression can stop dust before it gets into the air, while air filtration units, or air scrubbers, can help remove harmful particles from the environment.

PPE & RPE

Using the appropriate PPE and RPE can protect workers. Choosing, properly fitting and using the appropriate RPE can reduce the amount of dust breathed in. Many types of dust can also be harmful to the skin, so PPE such as disposable coveralls can also be an important control measure.

Decontamination

After the work, properly disposing of contaminated RPE and PPE can reduce the risk of construction dust being carried off-site and contaminating workers’ homes and other public spaces, and in some cases, such as after the removal of asbestos-containing materials, decontamination facilities such as showers are a necessary step.

 

Sources: Contains public sector information published by the Health and Safety Executive and licensed under the Open Government Licence. See www.hse.gov.uk.