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Invisible Threats: The Overlooked Dangers of Construction Dust

The dust generated during construction, renovation, or demolition is just a nuisance for most people. After all, what harm can a little dust on the living room table do? However, the situation is more harmful for construction professionals. These workers spend several hours a day exposed to dust that, in some cases, can contain hazardous materials. Learn more about the overlooked dangers of construction dust.

What Dust Might You Find in the Construction Sector?

Not all dust is the same. The type of substance builders might encounter depends on the material used for construction or the product with which a structure was built. Some of the most dangerous dust that can be found include:

  1. Silica Dust: This is one of the most hazardous dust types. It’s produced when working with concrete, bricks, tiles, and sandstone. Silica dust can cause severe lung diseases like silicosis and is also linked to lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders.
  2. Wood Dust: Generated from cutting, sanding, and other woodworking processes. Wood dust can cause skin problems, respiratory conditions, and even cancer.
  3. Asbestos Dust: Although its use is heavily regulated or banned in many countries, asbestos can still be found in older buildings. Disturbing asbestos-containing materials during demolition or renovation can release fibres into the air, which are highly hazardous when inhaled.
  4. Lead Dust: This may be present in older constructions where lead-based paints were used. Inhalation or ingestion of lead dust can lead to serious health issues, including brain damage and kidney disease.
  5. Cement Dust: Cement dust contains particles that irritate the nose, throat, and lungs. Chronic exposure leads to respiratory problems.
  6. General Particulate Matter: This includes dust generated from various construction activities, including demolishing buildings, sanding surfaces, and moving earth. Depending on the composition, it can irritate the respiratory system or cause more serious health issues.

UK Workplace Exposure Limits for Hazardous Dust

In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) sets workplace exposure limits (WELs) for various hazardous substances, including particles of dust found in the construction sector. The WELs are part of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH).

Throughout an 8-hour workday, the average concentration of inhalable dust in the air should not exceed 10 milligrams per cubic meter. The limit for respirable dust (particles that can pass through the nose and mouth and penetrate deep into the lungs) is 4 mg/m³.

The WEL for respirable crystalline silica (RCS) is 0.1 mg/m³ as an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA). In contrast, for hardwood dust (including mixed dusts containing hardwood), the WEL is 3 mg/m³ (respirable dust). For softwood dust, the WEL is 5 mg/m³ (respirable dust) as an 8-hour TWA.

The control limit for all types of asbestos is 0.1 fibres per cubic centimetre of air (0.1 f/cm³) as an 8-hour TWA. However, exposure should be reduced to as low as reasonably practicable, and any non-licensable work with asbestos requires exposure to be below 0.6 f/cm³ measured over 10 minutes.

According to the regulations, the established limit for occupational exposure to airborne lead is 0.15 mg/m³.

Safety Measures to Protect Against Construction Dust

With so many risks involved, it’s essential to take certain precautions to avoid exposure to these substances. The first step is to conduct a thorough risk assessment to identify potential dust sources and determine the appropriate control measures. A basic and cost-effective precaution involves using water sprays or mist to dampen dust at the source, preventing it from becoming airborne. Moreover, tools equipped with dust extraction units can effectively capture particulate matter at the generation point.

Implement dust extraction systems, such as Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV) units, to ensure that work areas are well-ventilated. When used with dust extractor fans and appropriate filtration systems, LEV units can significantly enhance the removal of harmful particulates, improving air quality.

To stop the dust from spreading, use barriers and enclosures to separate the work area. Adopt work methods that generate less dust and manage activities so that jobs that create more particulates are done when fewer people are on site.

Provide suitable respiratory protective equipment (RPE) such as masks or respirators, which should be CE marked and conform to the appropriate standards, and ask the builders to wear protective clothing to prevent dust from settling on skin and garments.

Dealing with the hazards present in construction dust is complex, as it involves preventing invisible enemies from harming us. However, with some basic precautions, it is possible to carry out construction and renovations efficiently and safely.