How to Reduce the Risk of Harmful Construction Dust

According to recent HSE estimates, Silica construction dust contributes to over 500 deaths per year in construction related occupations. In total, it is thought that over 4000 people die every year from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD) linked to their work.

If you work in the construction industry or manage people who do, then it is important you understand the dangers posed by construction dust.

In this article, we examine the main types of dust caused in construction work, how harmful they really are, and how you can reduce exposure to minimise risk.

What are the different types of dust found on construction sites?

Silica dust – Silica is a natural mineral present in large amounts in things like sand, sandstone and granite. It is also commonly found in many construction materials such as concrete and mortar. The silica is broken into very fine dust (also known as Respirable Crystalline Silica or RCS) during many common tasks such as cutting, drilling and grinding. It is commonly referred to as silica dust (see HSE information – Control of exposure to silica dust: A guide for employees).

Non-silica dust – There are several construction products where silica is either not found or present in very low amounts. The most common ones include gypsum, cement, limestone, marble and dolomite. This dust is also mixed with silica dust when cutting things like bricks.

Wood dust – Wood is widely used in construction and is found in two main forms; softwood and hardwood. Wood-based products are also commonly used including MDF and chipboard (see also Wood dust).

How can construction dust harm me?

Everyone working in construction who could be exposed to any one of these dusts should be made aware of the danger and the damage they could do to their lungs and airways. The most common dust related diseases that affect construction workers are:

  • Lung Cancer
  • Silicosis
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD)
  • Asthma

Most of these, apart from advanced silicosis which can develop rapidly, take years before you become aware of them. Unfortunately, by this stage, the damage has usually been done making it potentially difficult to treat.

What tasks create COnstruction Dust?

Most construction tasks create some dust, but high levels of dust are usually caused by one or more of the following:
• Equipment – High energy tools like cut-off saws, grinders, wall chasers and grit blasters produce high quantities of dust in short periods of time.
• Work Method – Dry sweeping can cause a lot of dust movement compared to vacuuming or wet brushing.
• Work Area – The more enclosed the working space the more dust will build up
• Time – The longer you spend working in an area the more dust will accumulate.

So how much dust could actually harm me?

To protect your lungs the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations (see also COSHH) sets limits on the quantity of dusts that you can breathe (called a Workplace Exposure Limit or WEL). These limits don’t reflect a large amount of dust.
To give an example, the image below shows the maximum amount of silica you can breathe when averaged over a normal working day.
When compared to a penny it is tiny – like a small pinch of salt:

construction dust - size comparison of one penny against a grain of salt

‘This limit is the legal maximum, the most you can breathe after the right controls have been used. For tasks that can create high levels of silica and wood dust these controls have to be very good as the risks from these dusts are high!’ [HSE WEBSITE]

How to reduce the danger of construction dust

1. Plan ahead – think about how you can limit the amount of dust created

Before starting work it is important that you should find ways of limiting the amount of dust as much as possible. Examples include:

  • Getting the correct size of building materials so less cutting or preparation is needed.
  • Using less powerful or alternative tools – e.g. Block splitter instead of a cut-off saw would dramatically reduce the amount of dust.
  • Think Outside the Box! – Try a different way of completing the task – e.g. a nail gun to direct fasten cable trays instead of drilling holes first.
2. Reduce the amount of dust getting into the air

You won’t be able to stop all the dust this way, so what can you do when you must carry out work that will produce a lot of dust? The main point is to ensure that the dust doesn’t get into the air, which is where it is most dangerous. The two most effective ways of doing this are:

  • Water – Water damps down dust clouds, but only if used correctly. Just wetting a surface before cutting for instance does not work. You need enough water for the whole time the work is being carried out. Some tools such as diamond core drills and cut off saws come with a hose attachment which should be used at all times.
  • Vacuum Extraction – Most tools now come with a dust extraction attachment or these can be purchased separately. However, make sure you get the correct class of vacuum for the type of dust being created. (Dust Extraction Classes Explained)
3. Manage the risk posed to people around you

So how far away do I need to be from someone else creating dust to be safe? There is no one correct answer to this question. However, if you follow these rules then you should go a long way towards minimizing the risk.

  • When working outside stay away from the area around the dust cloud and keep away from the direction of wind.
  • If working indoors, be aware that dust levels will build up.
  • Stay away from areas of work until the dust has cleared/settled.
  • If dust is being produced, always question whether further measures of prevention or extraction can be put in place to prevent the dust becoming airborne in the first place.

Are members of the public at risk from breathing dust?

Strictly – No. The risk of Lung disease is usually caused by breathing dust in over a long period of time and not just on the odd occasion. However, it is not pleasant breathing in dust at any time and could potentially cause a reaction to someone with asthma or other existing breathing problems.

Please note, The Health & Safety Executive does not deal with dust from construction sites where the main concern is that it is a nuisance. The Local Authority Environmental Health Department for the area may be able to assist with this problem.

Does being outside mean I am OK? No is the short answer to this question. It is often thought that working outside means that dust is not an issue as it will blow away. However, air movement outside is a lot more unpredictable than in an enclosed environment. This means that you could also be taking high levels of dust even when the work is carried out far away from where you are. Also, most tasks involve the operator working too close to the tool where the dust is being made to eliminate the risk when working outside.

We hope you found this article informative. Remember, by understanding the risks and following some simple procedures, you can reduce the dangers of dust on site – protecting both you and those around you.

Further information relating to this topic can be found here.

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