In this article, Nigel Bryson highlights some of the key occupational health issues. While the technical details will not be covered, the aim is to touch on some of the key occupational health hazards and the problems that need to be overcome to ensure safety.

Introduction

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is currently focusing attention on occupational health within the construction sector. Health hazards such as exposure to asbestos fibres, dust, noise, vibration and respirable crystalline silica have been well publicised in the trade press. No doubt they have featured in many induction courses at construction sites across the UK. Nevertheless, it is critical that the control measures that actually protect workers — and others — are identified and actively applied.

Asbestos fibres and dust

Asbestos fibres can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and specific cancer, mesothelioma, which affects the lung or stomach lining. For construction workers involved in modern buildings, exposure to asbestos fibres should not occur. All forms of asbestos have been banned in the UK since 1999 and a similar ban applied throughout Europe in 2005. However, when renovating or demolishing older buildings where asbestos was used in the fabric of the buildings, exposure could occur.

Given that there are specific regulations for dealing with asbestos, construction organisations need to work closely with clients to ensure that the appropriate control measures are applied. The HSE takes the year 2000 as the point from which buildings should be asbestos free.

Other dusts arising from construction work can cause other serious ill-health problems. In stone, paving flags, kerbs, etc they may contain silica. As many construction projects often require some stone cutting to fit the location, significant amounts of respirable crystalline silica can result. Silica is a cause of lung cancer and silicosis — a fibrosis of the lungs. Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulation 2002, the HSE has identified an airborne workplace exposure limit for respirable crystalline silica as 0.1mg/m3 over a Time Weighted Average.

The HSE has stressed that it wants to see effective control measures applied on site. When stone materials, concrete, etc are being cut it will expect to see dust suppression methods being used. This could include water being used at the cutting blade where dust may arise during cutting, ie on a Stihl saw blade. In some operations, extract ventilation may be attached to the equipment to capture dust in a custom fitted hood. The HSE requires vacuums to be fitted with an H Class 13 HEPA filter to the EN60335-1 standard.

While the aim of these control measures is to suppress dust, some is likely to escape. Hence, the HSE states that operatives should wear respiratory protective equipment (RPE). In the case of stone cutting, for example, the protection factor should be at least 20 and RPE with filtering face pieces FFCP3 or orinasal respirators with P3 filters should be worn by workers. Operatives will need a face fit test and the records of these tests kept. Indeed, some clients are asking for the certificates to show that the tests have been done.

Cement dust is hazardous in a number of respects. Under the REACH classification, it is a category 1 skin sensitiser and can cause dermatitis; a category 1 cause of eye damage/irritation; a category 2 skin irritant and can cause burns; and a category 3 respiratory irritant. Hence, it requires control measures to protect operatives against these potential hazardous properties.

Vibration

On 25 April 2016, two construction companies were fined for failing to provide ‘suitable and sufficient assessments’ for the risk from vibration and had not made reasonable estimates of employee’s exposure. This underlines the importance of applying adequate control measures, which are based on the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005.

In the case of the construction companies, they had failed to assess the risks of vibration properly. Consequently, they had not identified the ‘field of magnitude’ that the equipment vibrated. The HSE investigation was prompted by the reporting of cases of carpel tunnel syndrome and hand-arm vibration syndrome from employees.

One company was fined £280,000 and the other £12,000.

Where vibrating equipment is used, managers need to:

  • identify what vibration is being emitted by equipment used by workers — this can be by direct measurement or from manufacturer’s data

  • check this against the control limits that apply:

    • exposure action value of 2.5m/s2 A(8) at which level employers should introduce technical and organisational measures to reduce exposure

    • exposure limit value of 5.0m/s2 A(8) which should not be exceeded

  • apply control measures including the training of workers, record keeping of exposures and — where appropriate — health surveillance.

With the potential increase in fines that have resulted in the new sentencing guidelines (which came into force on 1 February 2016), issues such as vibration need to be taken seriously.

Noise

There are many aspects of construction work that can be noisy and could cause noise-induced hearing loss. For example, pile driving can produce high impact noise. On the other hand, vehicles or equipment can cause noise continuously that may be harmful to hearing. Equipment manufacturers are required to provide noise data with machines and this can be used to identify whether the equipment meets current control levels.

Replacing noisy equipment with new, quieter versions reduces noise at source. Different equipment may be used to allow a quieter process — use a hydraulic block splitter rather than a cut-off saw to cut blocks. There are many examples available where noise can be reduced. However, it is also possible that not all the noise can be eliminated. Hence, hearing protection may be needed for some workers. The main requirements to protect workers against noise are found in the Noise at Work Regulations 2005.

There are two limits.

  1. Lower exposure action value: 80dB(A) Daily or weekly personal noise exposure.

  2. Upper exposure action value: 85dB(A) Daily or weekly personal noise exposure.

While the detail is not given here, noise exposure over each level requires specific action by the employer to apply control measures. This will include workers training, PPE, action to reduce noise exposure, etc.

Diesel

Diesel emissions contain a number of gases and particles as by-products of combustion. Some of these, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are known carcinogens — cancer causing substances. In addition, soot particles can also be a source of respiratory and eye irritation. For the construction sector, vehicles such as heavy lorries, excavators, telehandlers and equipment such as generators are likely to be the main sources. Clearly any equipment that emits diesel fumes could be hazardous, depending on the tasks and environment involved.

Where such equipment is used outside, air will naturally dilute the exhaust fumes. Particular care needs to be taken in enclosed spaces and inside buildings. Here, fumes may build up and become concentrated in the air. There are measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of ill health. However, the state of the engines or motors; the way the equipment is used; the age of the equipment; the efficiency of the combustion process, etc can all affect the exhaust emissions.

Research work commissioned by the HSE indicated that exposure to diesel fumes is likely to have caused over 200 deaths of construction workers in 2005. The HSE has produced guidance and there are steps site managers can take to reduce the risks of ill health from diesel fumes. Managers need to assess the risk and implement effective control measures.

Summary

Occupational health is receiving greater attention from the HSE and the construction sector. While there are other occupational health issues, the ones highlighted here may impact on many construction workers — hence the need for effective preventative action.

Last reviewed 12 May 2016