Health Hazards in Construction Sites

Workers in the construction industry face a number of health and safety hazards in their work sites everyday. These may include exposure to materials that can cause serious illness and affect the worker’s health in the long–term. This fact sheet was prepared to draw your attention to the potential dangers of some common materials that you may be exposed to in your work.

Synthetic Mineral Fibres (SMF)

SMF are generally a series of products made from fibreglass, rockwool and ceramic. These fibrous products are widely used in buildings for thermal insulation and sound protection and are therefore handled in large amounts by laggers, plumbers and carpenters.

Due to the similarity in the fibres and their uses, there were concerns that SMF may have similar health effects to that from asbestos. However, a number of international studies show that SMF are less hazardous than asbestos. Larger fibres can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat while there is a possible risk of lung cancer from some SMF, for example fibreglass.

In good working conditions with adequate protection to the workers, the health risk from exposure to SMF dust is very low. Suitable respirators and protective clothing must be provided by the employer and worn by all workers exposed to SMF.

Custom Wood and Wood Dust

Construction workers doing flooring and wall panelling handle large amounts of particleboard or fibreboard. These custom woods contain formaldehyde, which is a chemical that can possibly cause cancer in humans. Machining operations such as sawing, drilling and sanding can generate large amounts of airborne wood dust with this hidden hazard. Inhaling formaldehyde can cause burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat and a range of other symptoms if higher levels are in the air.

Large wood dust particles can be trapped easily in the nasal passage and are known to cause nasal cancer among woodworkers. Inhaling wood dust also causes chronic lung disease by reducing lung function. Many types of wood (such as oak, western red cedar, blackwood) are known as the cause of occupational asthma, while allergic diseases may be caused by handling and working with timber contaminated with fungi (moulds).

An efficient dust extraction system should be in place to control wood dust. Suitable personal protection (dust masks, eye protection) must be worn when machining wood. In addition, the work area must be cleaned up every day and the wood dust safely removed. When working with custom wood, make sure that the work area is well ventilated so that any exposure to formaldehyde is minimised.

Solvents

Chemicals that are commonly known as solvents may be used in a number of jobs in the construction site. Solvents are widely used in degreasing, cleaning and painting and are found in glues, paints and varnishes.

Solvents are easily evaporated. Exposure to the vapour or liquid form can have both short and long-term effects on the worker’s health. The health effects will largely depend on the chemicals in the solvent and the amount of exposure to it. Exposure to solvents is mainly through breathing but they can also be absorbed through the skin.

Short-term exposure to solvents will cause headaches, nausea, drowsiness and dermatitis (skin problems). If repeatedly exposed to a solvent, a worker may develop long-term damage to the kidneys, liver and skin. Personality changes, sleep disorders, short-term memory loss and dementia can also occur from solvent exposure and these toxic effects on the nervous system are a great concern.

The employer should prevent exposure of any workers to these hazardous substances and provide them with information on the chemicals (MSDS, etc). Under the NSW OHS Regulation 2001, any health risks to the workers should be adequately assessed and controlled

Sewage Spills

Sewage spills have posed serious health risks to workers at a number of construction sites recently. Contact with raw sewage or with sewage-contaminated areas can risk exposure to Hepatitis A and infectious bacteria such as Giardia. Workers undertaking activities such as plumbing are particularly at risk from these biological hazards.

Hepatitis A is spread by sewage contaminated food and water, or by its contact with open sores or cuts. Infection occurs about 3-4 weeks later. Symptoms of hepatitis A are fever, headache, nausea, pain in the abdomen, dark urine and jaundice. The disease can be more severe in older patients.

If there is concern of exposure to contaminated sewage (particularly if ingested), the worker should be immediately inoculated against the virus. A medical practitioner will advice on appropriate measures.

In case of a sewage spill, the area should be vacated immediately. An approved contractor should clean up the contaminated area as soon as possible.

Prevention of hepatitis A infection

A safe, effective vaccine is available to protect against hepatitis A. Workers with an increased chance of being infected with hepatitis A virus at work should be vaccinated against the disease. There is a limited possibility of immunization-related reactions and workers should ask the doctor about possible risks from vaccine.

Employers have responsibilities under the Occupational Health and Safety legislation to provide a safe system of work for all employees. The employer should ensure that suitable controls are in place to prevent potential exposure to sewage-contaminated material in construction sites. Vaccination of at risk workers is one way to approach this potential hazard.

Bird Excrement

Cryptococcus neoformans is a species of fungi, which is often present on the excrement of pigeons. It may remain alive for months in dried bird faeces, and therefore is a common inhabitant of soil contaminated by bird excrement.

Cryptococcus infection usually occurs in the lung. In some instances, exposure to the fungi may result in pneumonia like symptoms, and a form of meningitis, although this is quite rare. Workers exposed to bird excrement should be adequately protected by appropriate respiratory equipment such as a P2 half facemask with a suitable filter. A long sleeved shirt, trousers, gloves and fully enclosed shoes should also be worn if working in contaminated areas.

This Fact Sheet is courtesy of The Workers Health Centre.

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