Four Key Health Hazards in Construction

The American Industrial Hygienist Association (AIHA), and in particular their AIHA Construction Committee, has a guidance document titled Focus Four for Health: An Initiative to Address Four Major Health Hazards in Construction.

You may remember we had a recorded video discussion with Industrial Hygienist Barb Epstien, who helped to create the AIHA guidance document on construction health hazards, in which she explained it to us just a while ago. Check out that recorded discussion on the AIHA guidance document here.

We encourage you to download the AIHA guidance document and read it yourself, but we’ll provide a summary to the health hazards and controls they offer below, too.

And by the way, if the name “focus four” rings a bell for you, the AIHA intentionally selected the name of these construction health hazards so it would resonate with OSHA’s “fatal four” construction safety hazards.

Four Construction Health Hazards to Beware of and Guard Against

The four health hazards for construction workers that the AIHA document calls out are:

  • Manual material handling
  • Noise
  • Air contaminants
  • High temperatures

We’ll take a closer look at each below.

You’re probably a safety professional if you’re reading this, so you know that being aware of these hazards is one part of the equation. But controlling them is a yet another part of that equation, and to control them, you’ll want to keep in mind the hierarchy of controls, prioritizing higher-level controls such as elimination and substitution over lower-level controls such as training and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Read more about the hierarchy of controls here.

Manual Material Handling

Construction workers lift, handle, and move a lot of materials and all of that manual material handling leads to a lot of health problems, most notably musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs. Yep, we’re talking back injuries, sore or ripped muscles and joints, and similar issues.

While some of these are relatively minor and go away quickly enough, other MSDs can put a person on disability, end their career, and interfere with the ability to live a normal, healthy life.

It’s important for workers to know the risks and to avoid them by not overdoing the physical labor. And likewise, it’s important for employers to provide training to workers about the risks but also to implement controls that reduce the need for heavy, repeated material handling when possible.

The AIHA Focus Four document has a TON of great information on manual material handling, and we recommend you consult it, but in addition they offer a list of other related resources to help you with manual material handling health issues as well. Here’s a selection from their list of related resources:

UK Health and Safety Executive Manual Materials Handling Information 


Noise

Noise is common at construction sites, including loud noises and noises that occur over extended amounts of time, and that contributes to occupational hearing loss amongst construction workers. Which is bad. But noise does more than just harm hearing, and it’s also linked to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and dementia.

Remember that as is the case with many health hazards related to exposure, the risk of hearing damage is a function of both how loud the noise is and how long construction workers are exposed to it. And keep in mind that hierarchy of controls–it’s better to reduce or eliminate noise than to simply rely on having workers wear hearing protection.

Here are some of the resources the AIHA recommends you check out on identifying and controlling noise hazards at construction sites in addition to their own guidance document:

If you want to see what OSHA has to say about occupational noise exposure in construction, check out 1926.52, Occupational Noise Exposure.


Air Contaminants

When you think of industrial hygiene, it’s possible you immediately think of air contaminants. And that’s the fourth health hazard in construction profiled in the AIHA guidance we’re highlighting.

Air contaminants may include particulates, dusts, fumes, gases, and vapors. They can be created by or during any number of common construction job tasks, including cutting, grinding, drilling, sanding, welding, using solvents, performing hot work, and more. The health hazards associated with air contaminants can be easy to overlook initially because in many cases, the serious health consequence appears significantly after the initial exposure.

See OSHA’s 1926.55, Gases, Vapors, Fumes, Dusts, and Mists and 1926 Subpart Z, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, for just a few of the key OSHA standards related to airborne contaminants. One air contaminant that’s on the mind of many in the construction industry is crystalline airborne silica, as a result of OSHA (still-somewhat) new 1926.1553 Crystalline Airborne Silica standard; you might want to download our 6 Components of OSHA Silica Compliance in Construction infographic.


High Temperatures

The fourth of the four construction health hazards profiled in the AIHA guidance document is high temperatures.

Of course, high temperatures can lead to fatigue, heat rash, heat syncope, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and even, ultimately, death. And things aren’t getting any easier when it comes to the dangers of working in heat, because we’ve had several of the hottest years on record in recent years.

Here are some of the resources the AIHA suggests you check out for help avoiding the hazards of heat at work.

Conclusion: Don’t Ignore Health on the Construction Job Site

We hope you found this article helpful. Be sure to read the entire AIHA guidance document on construction health hazards and follow up on some of the resources we’ve offered above to help keep your construction workers safe and healthy and protected from manual material handling, noise, air contamination, and heat hazards at work.

Although mental health issues weren’t addressed in this AIHA guidance document, mental health, depression, and suicide are significant issues in the construction industry. And as we write this in late 2020, that’s become even more true due to the COVID pandemic. And speaking of COVID, the AIHA has written an entirely separate guidance document about COVID and construction and we’ll be profiling that shortly.

In addition to everything else above, you might also find some of the articles, recorded discussions, and online training courses about industrial hygiene helpful:

And before you go, feel free to download our free Construction Safety Training Guide!

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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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