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HSE warns on dangers of dust and risk of respiratory problems

The Health and Safety Executive has warned that dust from drilling or sanding can put workers at risk of respiratory problems, ranging from asthma to much more serious lung diseases.

At worst, too much exposure to the dust can lead to chronic lung disease or even cancer. HSE estimates at least 500 workers in the construction industry die every year from exposure to silica dust, coming from drilling, breaking, or sanding concrete, brick or mortar.

The biggest problem faced on site is that the damaging particles are too small to be seen and they hang in the air for a long time. “Dust can build up in the lungs and harm them gradually over time,” the HSE says, “Unfortunately by the time it is noticed, the total damage done may already be serious and life-changing.”

It warned that it is not safe to breathe in any more than a tiny amount every day (see pic, right), so controls are vital.

The cross-industry Construction
Dust Partnership was launched in a bid to warn all sectors of the industry to reduce their exposure and control dust – by wearing the right masks and by using proper dust extraction, or water suppression, or if possible avoiding tasks such as drilling or chasing.

While heavy construction is seen as the front line, the Partnership stresses that HVACR applications are also at risk, because of dust from materials such as plasterboard and MDF, and the fact that much activity takes place in confined spaces. Even something such as sweeping up can expose workers to the risks, the HSE warned.

The CDP consists of representatives from across the construction supply chain, ranging from tool manufacturers to equipment hire companies to contractors and customers. One of its main tasks, the group says, will be tackling the attitude among workers who think that dust is just part of the job,

The CDP believes this makes it essential to raise awareness: “If it were 500 people falling off roofs every year, there would be an outcry,” said Chris Bowes of contractor Vinci. “But it is not just the serious illnesses that dust can cause – it is the asthma that goes with it.”

Main contractors’ group UKCG is undertaking a range of projects, based on educating its workforce and working on ways to further control the risks.

HSE construction inspector Chris Lucas said: “You can’t have a dustless construction site, we know that. So it vital to have the correct on-tool extraction for removing it from the work site and suppression of any site dust.”

The CDP is using the phrase ‘clean construction’ to underline the importance of using equipment such as extraction systems, properly filtered vacuums, water suppression and clean-up.

Mr Lucas said: “We ask everyone to minimise the risks of dust and to seek to control it at source. Everyone has a role to play in this, there are lots of people in the supply chain who can help.”

One of the advantages of a dust-free work site is that productivity is increased, added
Mr Bowes, giving an economic argument to the safety measures. “Providing dust extraction to a drilling operation will make the hole cleaner and speed things up, which is a great argument.”

The CDP is also talking to the designers of buildings, in a bid to reduce the incidence of dust, such as more offsite construction and designing for services to be behind walls, rather than requiring wall chasing.

Mr Bowes said: “We need to get the message out that wearing a mask should be as natural as a hard hat or safety glasses.”


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