Air Contaminant Hazards and Construction Health

Air Contaminant Hazards and Construction Health Image

As you may know, the American Industrial Hygienists Association (AIHA) has released a Focus Four for Construction Health guidance document that identifies four significant health hazards in construction, explains the hazards in detail, gives control recommendations, and more. We recently discussed the health guidance document with Barb Epstein, one of the creators of the AIHA construction health hazards document, and wrote about the four construction health hazards as well.

Having introduced people to the AIHA Focus Four document and those four construction health hazards in general, we wanted to follow-up by taking a deep-dive, looking at each of the four health hazards in more detail in separate articles. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at air contaminants (the other health hazards are manual material handling, noise, and high temperatures, and we’ll take closer looks at each in later articles).

Air Contaminants Are a Serious Health Hazard in the Construction Industry

Air contaminants can lead to a wide range of health concerns, ranging from relatively minor irritations to long-term illnesses that cause disability or death. These more serious health issues related to air contaminants in construction include things like asthma, fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis, and more.

Because air contaminants often enter the body when the construction worker inhales them, the damage is often centered in the lungs or respiratory system. But not all of the damage occurs in the lungs. Air contaminants can eventually work through the body and cause damage in ways that might be unexpected, such as causing asphyxiation, damaging internal organs like the kidneys and systems like the nervous system, reproductive system, and circulatory system, and even causing things like fatigue or hearing disabilities.

Here’s a sobering statistic: according to the AIHA, more than 15% of construction workers 50 years or older show evidence of lung disease. That’s two-times higher than the rate of lung disease for people of the same age with white-collar jobs!

What Types of Air Contaminants Must Construction Workers Be Aware Of?

Air contaminants can include gases, vapors, fumes, dusts, and mists. OSHA has safety and exposure regulations covering these air contaminants at 1926.55 and you can find a lot of additional information in the CDC/NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards.

Common examples include things like silica, asbestos, lead, carbon monoxide, toluene, and more.

Thinking of Exposures to Highly Toxic Substances

Safety professionals and workers in construction should be mindful and guard against all exposures to harmful air contaminants. In particular, though, the AIHA Construction Health Hazards guidance document calls for being especially mindful of highly toxic substances, which they say:

  • Are more potent
  • Can cause multiple different health problems (affecting multiple organs instead of just one, for example)
  • Cause irreversible effects

How to Control Airborne Contaminant Hazards in Construction

The AIHA guidance document recommends the following for controlling these hazards:

  1. Plan ahead to reduce potential problems: this starts with conducting a job hazard analysis (JHA), understanding the hazards at the workplace, including typical Haz-Com tools and techniques (SDS and so on), and using the hierarchy of controls, in particular to consider elimination and substitution.
  2. Implement and check on controls: Implement the controls planned in the earlier step, check to see those controls are being used and continue to be appropriate over time, and change controls when necessary (when the job tasks change, for example).

Topics and OSHA Standards Related to Hazardous Air Contaminants

In relation to these airborne health hazards in construction, safety professionals and construction workers in general should be familiar with the following safety hazards/controls and with the OSHA standards related to them:

  • Hazardous Substances: OSHA’s 1926.55 covers gases, vapors, fumes, dusts, and mists and 1926 Subpart Z covers a large number of toxic and hazardous substances. Additionally, 1926.60 addresses methylenedianline and 1926.62 addresses lead. Protection from hazardous airborne contaminants begins with knowing what they are, what their characteristics are, and how to control those hazards.
  • Hazard Communication: OSHA’s 1926.59 lists the Hazard Communication requirements. These are actually the same as the 1910.1200 HazCom requirements for general industry.
  • Ventilation: OSHA addresses issues related to ventilation in 1926.57 in relation to dusts, fumes, mists, gases, and vapors and 1926.353 in relation to welding, cutting, and heating.
  • Respirators: OSHA addresses respiratory protection in 1926.103.
  • Confined Spaces: Airborne contaminants can be even more hazardous in a confined spaced. OSHA’s confined spaces in construction standard is 1926 Subpart AA.

Conclusion: Air Contaminants Are a Serious Hazard in Construction

We hope you found this article about air contaminants in construction, and the health hazards they pose, helpful. Be sure to check out the AIHA Focus Four construction health guidance and stay tuned for future articles on health hazards in construction and how to control them.

And don’t forget to download the Construction Safety Training Guide below before you go! 

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Construction Safety Training Guide

Learn to use, design, deliver, and evaluate safety training more effectively in the construction industry. Includes tips on how people learn, evidence-based training design, safety training within safety management, and the hierarchy of controls plus links to helpful resources.

Download Free Guide

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 25 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center and an Instructional Design certification from the Association of Talent Development (ATD), and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI/ASSP Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training. Jeff frequently writes for magazines related to safety, safety training, and training and frequently speaks at conferences on the same issues, including the Washington Governor's Safety and Health Conference, the Oregon Governor's Occupational Safety and Health Conference, the Wisconsin Safety Conference, the MSHA Training Resources Applied to Mining (TRAM) Conference, and others.

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