Dust is more than a nuisance. It’s a killer. Exposure to harmful levels of construction dust is linked to thousands of construction worker deaths every year. But despite its potential to harm, employers and workers in the construction industry often overlook the risk.
That’s why the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently launched Dust Kills – a nationwide initiative raising awareness of the dangers of construction dust and the laws put in place to protect employers and workers.
The campaign offers free advice to employers, managers and workers on how to prevent the life-changing or fatal respiratory conditions that exposure to construction dust can cause.
If you’re an employer in the construction industry or regularly exposed to dust at work, read our guide to learn more about how Dust Kills and how you can create safe, compliant job sites.
What Are the Aims of the ‘Dust Kills’ Initiative?
The HSE hopes its new initiative will educate employers, workers and managers of smaller construction firms on the often-dismissed threat of construction dust.
In addition to the awareness campaign, the HSE will ramp up workplace inspections across the summer. HSE officials will be looking to identify employers failing to protect their workers from the severe harm construction dust can inflict.
The HSE hopes to prevent the thousands of deaths and respiratory diseases individuals suffer annually because of workplace construction dust exposure.
Why is the ‘Dust Kills’ Initiative Important?
In 2022/23, the HSE conducted more than a thousand inspections of woodworking sites. It was found that 78% of businesses needed to do more to protect their workers from wood dust, a substance linked to lifelong respiratory illnesses such as asthma and various cancers.
And this is just one type of dust that workers are exposed to. Construction work creates a range of harmful dust types linked to respiratory conditions or fatalities.
Around 12,000 workers died due to work-related lung diseases last year. And 19,000 new respiratory illnesses were thought to be caused, or made worse, due to construction dust exposure, according to the HSE.
Dust Kills is more than just a new health and safety initiative. It’s a fact.
What is Construction Dust?
Construction dust is a general term covering all types of dust on construction sites. There are three main types:
- Silica dust – (also known as Respirable Crystalline Silica or RCS) is created when working with silica-containing materials such as concrete, mortar and sandstone
- Wood dust – created when working with soft and hard woods and also wood-based products such as MDF or plywood
- General dust – created when working with non-wood materials that contain low to no levels of silica, including gypsum, limestone and marble
All of these dust types have been linked to serious respiratory illnesses. Exposure to silica dust alone is believed to kill around 500 workers every year.
What Activities Create Construction Dust?
Many everyday construction activities create harmful dust particles. The HSE advises employers and construction workers to be particularly mindful of dust exposure when:
- Cutting concrete products, including kerbs, slabs or paving/roof tiles
- Grinding concrete and concrete products
- Cutting or sanding wood
- Dry sweeping in poorly ventilated areas
- Abrasive pressure blasting
- Soft stripping or other internal demolition work
Many construction workers overlook the dangers of dust exposure because the harmful effects are often not immediately noticeable. By the time workers notice symptoms, it’s often too late.
Your lungs have some natural defences to protect your respiratory system from potentially harmful dust exposure. Initial barriers, such as the mucus in your nose, prevent larger particles from entering deeper into your respiratory system. Any particles that do reach critical airways can often be trapped and repelled by tiny hair cells known as cilia.
However, long-term exposure to construction dust repeatedly triggers your lungs’ natural responses, eventually overwhelming them. Over a long enough timeline, the lung tissue is damaged and scar tissue begins to develop. This can cause severe health conditions, including:
- Lung cancer
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
These illnesses can cause permanent disability or significantly shorten life expectancy. Even at rest, sufferers of these illnesses often find breathing difficult, and basic physical activities can cause breathlessness.
The majority of these conditions cannot be treated. The only effective cure is prevention.
What Can You Do?
The HSE offers guidance for employers and workers to help mitigate construction dust risk. The advice helps protect individuals and keeps employers compliant with health and safety laws.
The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) outlines three key duties related to construction dust exposure. Employers must:
- Assess the risks
- Control the risks
- Review the controls
A competent person (someone with the right combination of skills, experience and knowledge) should judge the risks of dust exposure present on the job site.
Every site will be different but risk levels will generally be higher if:
- High-energy tools like saws and grinders are used
- Work areas are indoors or in a confined space with poor ventilation
- Tasks take a long time to complete
- Tasks are regularly repeated
Where hazards are identified and risk levels are unacceptable, employers must ensure the risk is eliminated or controlled to a reasonably practicable level.
Eliminating dust exposure should be the first priority. And this can be achieved with good design and planning.
However, there will always be activities that generate some construction dust. In these cases, employers must identify ways to control the risk. Typical control measures include:
- Substituting materials where possible
- Using less-powerful tools
- Fitting tools with a local exhaust ventilation (LEV) device
- Ensuring good ventilation wherever construction dust is created
- Limiting exposure for other workers by isolating dust-generating activities
- Providing adequate Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) for workers
As with other workplace hazards, there is a hierarchy of risk controls. The use of RPE should only be considered once all other options have been found unsuitable.
Workers also have to respect the established control measures and use them correctly. For example, RPE is ineffective if workers don’t wear it. Employers should provide adequate training to ensure workers understand the risks of construction dust exposure and the control measures put in place.
Where Can I Learn More?
Ensure you understand the threat of construction dust and how to protect yourself and your workers.
Our Silica Dust Awareness training course helps you to create a safer work environment for your team and ensure compliance. You can be confident that if an HSE inspector arrives unexpectedly, they won’t find an issue with dust control on your site.
The Dust Kills campaign runs until July 2023. You can find further advice and guidance on the HSE’s website.