When we think of safety concerns in the construction industry, we tend to think of things like fall protection, lockout/tagout, ladder use, etc. However, there are other hazards, more common in construction, that can affect workers’ health in the long run.
The AIHA (American Industrial Hygiene Association) has identified four key health hazards of the construction industry: material handling, noise, air contamination, and high temperatures. Just like with other safety issues, it is important that construction workers are aware of these hazards, use preventative measures to avoid them, and do what they can to protect their long-term health.
Manual Material Handling
Construction work often involves moving building materials. While equipment can sometimes be used for heavy lifting, a lot has to be done manually. Repeated handling of heavy or awkward materials over long distances can lead to injuries, such as sprains or strains.
To assess the potential danger for injury when lifting, use the following acronym: WHAT PACE.
Weight – Heavier loads mean higher risk.
Handling ease – Awkward loads, those without handles or difficult to grasp, are a higher risk. Uneven or slick surfaces also increase the chance of injury.
Awkward postures – There is a higher risk associated with oads that require stooping, reaching, twisting, bending, or kneeling.
Time/Distance – If a load must be carried for a long time or distance, it is more dangerous to the worker.
PACE – Handling many loads per shift is a risk factor as well.
Once the dangerous tasks are identified during a job-site analysis, alternatives can be implemented to reduce risk. You can introduce new equipment to help workers, use multiple workers to handle a load, and rotate workers so they aren’t tasked with material handling for the entire duration of their shift.
Noise is an ever-present condition on construction sites. Equipment, such as power tools, generators, fans, or heaters,all create noise. Many of them generate sounds above 85 decibels—the point at which hearing damage begins.
Long-term and/or high-volume noise can result in hearing loss and tinnitus. Hearing loss prevents communication with coworkers, family, and friends. Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, has been tied to the loss of sleep, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and even cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.
Prevention measures include the use of ear protection, such as earplugs or earmuffs. An even better solution is to invest in quieter equipment or to isolate the equipment in an area with sound insulation. Properly maintaining equipment can also help as unmaintained equipment can be noisier.
See OSHA’s pocket guide on construction noise for more information.
Construction workers can be exposed to a wide variety of air contaminants, including chemical fumes, silica dust, wood dust, metal fumes and gases, and exhaust from equipment. Since many of these have no detectable smell, workers can be exposed to them without realizing.
Exposure to these contaminants doesn’t usually result in any immediate health problems. However, over time, they can lead to breathing problems, cancer, and other diseases.
In order to prevent overexposure to air contaminants, you should implement source control.
Vacuums or water are the best way to prevent airborne materials, such as silica dust and sawdust, from getting into the air. The recent silica procedures have increased the availability of tools outfitted with such controls.
The other option is to use PPE or respirators. Dust masks can help with particulates and dust. Respirators should be a last resort as they must be fitted by a professional and require regular doctor assessments whether a worker is fit to wear a respirator.
What is more, many of the exposure limits in some OSHA documents have not been updated in several years. OSHA recommends using alternative occupational exposure limits (OELs), which include CalOSHA’s Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs), NIOSH’s Recommended Exposure Limits (RELs), and ACGIH’s Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) and Biological Exposure Indices (BEIs).
Heat is something that construction workers have to deal with each summer. Many workers work outside in the heat, and inside may not be much better since the HVAC equipment is often turned off. Although workers can get used to high temperatures, many heat-related illnesses, such as heat stroke or heat exhaustion, can occur in the first few days on the job, or after being in a cooler environment for a few days.
Heat can also create other safety concerns. For instance, workers may not be able to handle tools properly with their sweaty hands or may have trouble seeing because safety glasses are fogged up.
Providing adequate hydration is one of the best preventative measures, along with frequent breaks so that workers can sit in the shade and cool off.
Workers doing hot work, or wearing lots of clothing or PPE, need more frequent breaks. Ventilation and fans can help by moving air, but the air must be cooler in temperature than the ambient air. Work can also be scheduled earlier in the day to take advantage of cooler temperatures.
Keeping Everyone Safe and Healthy
It is AIHA’s hope that these four health hazards are treated with as much respect as OSHA’s Fatal Four. It is important that workers are educated to identify these hazards and make the changes necessary to mitigate the risk of illness or injury. For more information, see AIHA’s Focus Four for Health: An Initiative to Address Four Major Construction Health Hazards.