Despite increasing awareness of the dangers, thousands of construction workers die every year from the inhalation of dust and fumes. You might assume that these issues would be rare in the modern construction industry, but in the last few years, governmental, non-governmental and academic studies have indicated that the risks are still there and are even, in some areas, increasing.
Asbestos and silica the most deadly substances
Asbestos and silica are the substances that cause most death and illness. The dangers of asbestos have been known for decades, so it’s somewhat surprising that it continues to cause so much damage. In the UK, for example, the government acknowledged in 2022 that asbestos is the biggest cause of death amongst construction workers1. Asbestos causes two types of cancer (both of which are almost always fatal) mesothelioma cancer and lung cancer. It can also cause asbestosis, a chronic, incurable lung disease.
It’s now common knowledge that asbestos is a deeply hazardous substance when moved, but unfortunately it is not likely to disappear any time soon. Its use is banned in the EU and tightly regulated in many other countries, but some countries still mines and exports hundreds of thousands of tons of asbestos every year3.
New regulations discussed worldwide
It’s a slightly different story with respirable crystalline silica (RCS). Silica is the main constituent of 95% of all rock, so it will, without question, continue to be a presence in construction and other industries. Cutting, grinding, sanding or drilling stone will always involve the risk of inhalation and associated health issues, and employers and employees need to continually take measures to avoid exposure.
Of course, some substances are more dangerous than others in this area, and legislation is currently being discussed in Australia that would ban the use of engineered rock. A composite made from crushed rock, engineered rock has been identified by the Center for Disease Control as a factor in outbreaks of silicosis in the US, Australia, Israel and Spain. Silicosis is an incurable, and sometimes fatal lung condition, and these recent outbreaks have affected many construction and stone fabrication workers under the age of 503.
Most illnesses caused by particle inhalation develop over years
One possible reason why dust exposure has continued to cause so much damage, is that its impact is often not immediate. Asthma and silicosis can sometimes develop suddenly, but most illnesses caused by particle inhalation develop over years, sometimes decades. In the past, this has made it harder to unequivocally link illness to construction work, but that’s no longer the case. Developments in epidemiology, modelling and biomonitoring help make these links clearer, and can better indicate potential causalities.
With increasing evidence of the dangers of air-borne particles in the construction industry, it’s vital that employers take determined action to minimize the risks.
1. UK Health and Safety Excutive: https://www.hse.gov.uk/construction/healthrisks/cancer-and-construction/asbestos.htm
2. World Bank. https://wits.worldbank.org/trade/comtrade/en/country/ALL/year/2021/tradeflow/Exports/partner/WLD/product/252400
3. Center for Disease Control. https://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2019/10/29/silicosis-countertop/
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