Don’t let the dust settle

Laura King asks why dust is still a problem in the construction industry and what needs to be done to prevent it.

In recent weeks the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been targeting construction firms to check that their safety protocols meet regulatory standards — with a particular focus on dust.

Described by the HSE’s chief inspector of construction, Sarah Jardine, as a “mature health challenge” which “the industry ought to be managing effectively”, exposure to dust within the construction industry still leads to thousands of deaths each year.

So, why is dust still causing such a problem?

What is dust and why is it dangerous?

Dust is tiny solid particles of matter of varying sizes (usually described in microns) which can be formed of many different materials — some of which are more dangerous than others. It is highly dispersible and can easily circulate in air.

Although dust can be dirty and is often a nuisance, it is not always visible. For example, a human hair is between 50–70 microns (the human eye can typically see around 40 microns) but cement dust can range from 1–100 microns, so only some elements of the dust will be visible.

The body’s defence mechanisms can filter out many of the larger particles by trapping them in the mucus of the nose and airways. However, smaller invisible particles (less than 10 microns in size) can evade these defences and enter the lungs. Here, they can cause serious illness including cancer, lung sensitisation, silicosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Often these illnesses take time to develop, and with dust not always being visible, workers can be damaging themselves without realising it.

For example, according to industry statistics published by the CITB:

  • over 40% of new cancer registrations/deaths are construction workers

  • more than 500 construction workers die from exposure to silica dust every year.

As well as lift-threatening disease, dust can also lead to illness that can affect an individual’s quality of life. For instance, it can cause illness in the digestive tract if swallowed, irritation to the eyes, and skin exposure to some dusts can also cause dermatitis.

What activities cause dust?

There are multiple ways that dust is created in construction, and almost all construction sites will produce some level of dust. Activities that generate a high volume of dust are include:

  • cutting paving blocks, roof tiles or other hard materials

  • sawing or planning wood

  • grinding concrete or other materials

  • sanding plasterboard

  • soft-strip demolition

  • emptying and moving bags of fine-grained materials, such as concrete mix

  • shovelling materials

  • dry sweeping construction sites.

Why is dust still causing problems?

In a 2020 survey by Construction Magazine, 84% of respondents agreed with the statement that “Progress is being made [with regards to dust control] but more focus is needed to address the issue”. Concerningly, the same survey found that only 9% of respondents believed the industry is aware of the issue and is managing it correctly, and 7% did not think dust was an issue and no further action was required.

Although several years old, a 2014 survey by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and the Construction Dust Partnership found that certain attitudes were prevalent resulting in dust exposure to workers. These included the following.

Low awareness: Over 40% of respondents recognised that dust was a health issue, but were not aware of the significance. As a result, many workers just got on with their jobs and did not necessarily understand the full health implications of breathing in dust — particularly fine particulate matter.

A disconnect between design stages and construction: Over 50% of respondents felt that there was very little consideration of health and safety during the design stage. This meant that projects were designed for aesthetics and functionality, often with low cost margins (reducing the ability to factor in aspects such as health and safety) and often by teams that have little knowledge of the practical on-site implications of their design. As a result, a low priority was placed on health and safety during the design stage and consideration of worker safety only came into play when work was due to start.

However, awareness is growing, and attitudes are shifting. For example, RCS dust, which is often produced when bricks or stones are cut or drilled, has been reclassified as carcinogenic, and in 2020 the All Party Parliamentary Group for Respiratory Health published Silica — the next asbestos? calling for new regulations to treat silica dust like asbestos, and to halve the legal limit to workplace exposure.

This report also outlined further problems that need to be addressed. These included construction workers not linking occupational exposure to dust with their health problems, lack of adherence to HSE guidance, and under-resourcing of the HSE leading to low enforcement.

The structure of the industry is also problematic, with many small and micro-sized businesses that might not have the capacity to implement adequate protection or be able to afford the cost (for example, replacing masks frequently). Furthermore, protective measures are not always seen as practical and can be thought to increase short-term risk (for example, masks causing glasses to steam up).

In its evidence to the report, the HSE also stated that the level of exposure is often underestimated by workers, and that even with mechanical controls in place some common tasks involving high-powered tools may still produce workplace exposure limits (WELs) above those that are legally allowed.

What is the dust control hierarchy?

Employers do have legal responsibility to control dust in the workplace. As well as a general duty to protect health under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, any material that is considered hazardous under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) will also require a risk assessment to be put in place.

The controls that need to be put in place under COSHH follow a basic dust control hierarchy:

  1. Assess the risk — this means considering dust creation before work even begins and evaluating the hazards and risks. Consideration will need to be given to materials and work processes — both by designing better and, critically, planning how to manage work and contractors.

  2. Control the risks — first, stop or reduce the amount of dust being created by using different (often less powerful) tools, or by using different materials. Any inevitable dust will then need to be controlled by wetting down or by mechanical extraction. As a last line of protection, adequate, properly fitted, respiratory protective equipment (RPE) should be provided. Other controls can also be put in place, such as contractor pledges, dust-proofing certain locations, and limiting the number of people exposed to dust. Here, training is also essential as it empowers workers to understand the risks.

  3. Review — any controls in place will need reviewing.

Summary

Dust within the construction industry continues to cause long-term ill-health and can lead to fatalities. Controlling dust requires employers to consider dust-creation during the design phase and educate workers as part of a three-step risk assessment:

  • assess the risk

  • control the risk

  • review the risk.

More information on how to manage dust within construction can be found in Dust in Construction.