Construction can be a dirty business, but it’s not just dust in your hair or mud on your boots that you have to worry about. You also need to protect your lungs. What are the biggest breathing hazards in construction, and how can you protect yourself against them?
In most cases, smoke on a construction site is a bad sign. Tobacco use is also rampant in the construction industry, which can have a negative impact on air quality even for those who don’t partake. Smoking near flammable materials can create an even bigger safety hazard as well. Smoke exposure in the workplace, both from fires and from cigarettes, can introduce carbon monoxide and other hazardous gases into the local atmosphere.
The best way to avoid the negative effects of smoke exposure is to remove yourself from the environment. If that isn’t possible, respirators and breathing units can provide some protection, but these are usually only necessary for firefighters and those actively combatting wildfires, rather than those in the construction industry.
Welding is often an essential part of the construction process. While most people understand the importance of protecting the eyes, many overlook the risk of welding fumes and the impact they can have on their health. In the short term, exposure to these fumes can cause irritation, nausea, and dizziness. Long-term exposure can cause a variety of cancers, as well as damage to the kidneys and nervous system.
Protecting yourself from welding fumes is a twofold challenge. First, you need to ensure you’re welding in a well-ventilated area. You need enough airflow to move harmful fumes away, but not enough that it interferes with your welding. You also need to wear a respirator to prevent yourself from inhaling the fumes.
Whether it comes from fine sand or drilled concrete, silica dust — as known as respirable silica — presents an extreme breathing hazard on construction sites. Long-term exposure can cause a condition known as silicosis, in which the silica particles lodge in the lungs and make it more difficult to breathe. Addressing the presence of respirable silica in the workplace is essential for compliance with OSHA regulations.
Respirators rated for silica dust are a necessity. N95 NIOSH-approved respirators are the minimum rated protection for anyone working with silica dust. Just know each N95 is only rated for a limited time, so make sure you don't exceed it.
Asbestos isn’t used in most new construction projects, though you still may encounter it in demolition or remodeling projects built before 1990. The U.S. does not have an asbestos ban in place, although they did stop mining the substance in 2002, so any asbestos used in the States after that point is imported.
Companies need to be aware of any potential asbestos present in any remodeling or demolition projects so they can take all the necessary precautions. Exposure to asbestos dust can cause a type of lung cancer known as mesothelioma, in addition to other health concerns.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Many of the materials we use today — from cleaning compounds to adhesives — all emit volatile organic compounds. These are primarily a concern for indoor air quality, but exposure to concentrated chemicals can be dangerous even outdoors or in well-ventilated areas.
Providing sufficient ventilation is one of the best ways to protect against VOCs, as is avoiding products that have a high concentration of these chemicals. If neither is an option, wearing respiratory protection rated for these materials is going to be essential.
Lead Dust and Fumes
Lead is another material you won’t often encounter in modern construction, but will sometimes find in older buildings slated for remodeling or demolition. Lead was often used in paint to make it more durable and accelerate drying, but its use in this manner has been banned since 1978.
Still, for demolition projects or remodeling older buildings, testing for the presence of lead is essential. It won’t necessarily stop the project, but additional precautions are necessary to prevent exposure to lead dust and fumes during construction.
This is one breathing hazard you won’t often encounter in the construction industry, but it does happen from time to time, so it’s essential to be aware of the risk. Working inside ducts, pipes, or large containers creates the risk of generating an oxygen-deficient environment.
Operating in one of these environments for extended periods could result in hypoxia — a lack of oxygen to the brain — or even death. The risk climbs exponentially for people working alone in these areas without a spotter.
Oxygen and CO2 sensors are easy to acquire and can alert you if oxygen levels are getting too low or CO2 levels get too high before you start experiencing symptoms. These sensors should be required in an enclosed environment where a lack of oxygen could become a hazard.
Stay Safe and Breathe Easy
Breathing hazards may not be as common as other safety concerns on your average construction site, but you still need to be aware of them so you can take all the necessary safety precautions. Stay safe on the job and breathe easy knowing it’s safe to do so.