Construction dust is not just a nuisance; it can
seriously damage your health and some types can
eventually even kill.
Regularly breathing these dusts over a long time can therefore cause life-changing lung diseases.
This post explains what employers need to know to prevent or adequately control construction dust risks. It also provides advice for safety representatives and workers.
Types of Construction Dust
Construction dust | This is a general term used to describe different dusts that you may find on a construction site. There are 3 main types:
- Silica dust – created when working on silica containing
materials like concrete, mortar and
sandstone (also known as respirable crystalline
silica or RCS);
- Wood dust – created when working on softwood,
hardwood and wood-based products like MDF and plywood;
- Other ‘general’ dust – created when working on other materials containing very little or no
silica. The most common include gypsum (eg in plasterboard), limestone, marble and dolomite.
Occupational Disease and Construction Dust
Anyone who breathes in these dusts should know
the damage they can do to the lungs and airways.
The main dust-related diseases affecting construction workers are:
– lung cancer;
– chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD);
Some lung diseases, like advanced silicosis or asthma, can develop quite quickly.
However, most of these diseases take a long time to develop. Dust can build up in the lungs and harm them gradually over time. The effects are often not immediately obvious. Unfortunately, by the time it is noticed the total damage done may already be serious and life changing. It may mean permanent disability and early death.
Construction workers have a high risk of developing these diseases because many common construction tasks can create high dust levels.
Over 500 construction workers are believed to die from exposure to silica dust every year.
The amounts needed to cause this damage are not large.
The largest quantity (WEL) of silica someone should be breathing in a day after using the right controls is shown here next to the penny.
Not much, is it?
How to Control Construction Dust
The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) cover activities which may
expose workers to construction dust. There are three key things you need to do:
- Assess (the risks)
- Control (the risks)
- Review (the controls)
Task – the more energy the work involves, the bigger the risk. High-energy tools like cut-off saws, grinders and grit blasters produce a lot of dust in a very short time;
Frequency – regularly doing the same work day
after day increases the risks.
Work area – the more enclosed a space, the more the dust will build up. However, do not assume that dust levels will be low when working outside with high-energy tools;
Time – the longer the work takes the more dust
there will be;
Control (the risks)
Use the following measures to control the risk. Examples of controls for common high-risk tasks include;
Stop or Reduce the Dust
1. Right size of building materials so less cutting or
preparation is needed;
2. Silica-free abrasives to reduce the risks when
3. Less powerful tool – eg a block splitter instead of a cut-off saw;
4. Different method of work altogether – eg a direct fastening system.
Control the Dust
Even if you stop some dust this way, you may do other work that could still produce high dust levels.
In these cases the most important action is to stop the dust getting into the air.
There are two main ways of doing this:
Water – water damps down dust clouds. However, it needs to be used correctly.
This means enough water supplied at the right levels for the whole time that the work is being done.
Just wetting the material beforehand does not work quite so well. You can visibly see if dust is still being created and adjust accordingly.
On-tool extraction – removes dust as it is being
produced. It is a type of local exhaust ventilation
(LEV) system that fits directly onto the tool.
This ‘system’ consists of several individual parts – the
tool, capturing hood, extraction unit and tubing.
Use an extraction unit to the correct specification
(ie H (High) M (Medium) or L (Low) Class filter unit).
Don’t just use a general commercial vacuum.
RPE for Construction Dust
Respiratory protective equipment (RPE) Water or on-tool extraction may not always be appropriate or they might not reduce exposure enough.
Often respiratory protection (RPE) has to be
provided as well. Let’s take a look at what that means in practice.
You will need to make sure that the RPE is:
- adequate for the amount and type of dust – RPE has an assigned protection factor (APF) which shows how much protection it gives the wearer. The general level for construction dust is an APF of 20. This means the wearer only breathes 1/20th of the amount of dust in the air;
- suitable for the work – disposable masks or half masks can become uncomfortable to wear for
long periods. Powered RPE helps minimise this.
Consider it when people are working for more than an hour without a break;
– compatible with other items of protective equipment;
– fits the user. Face fit testing is needed for tightfitting masks;
– worn correctly. Anyone using tight-fitting masks also needs to be clean shaven.
Remember: RPE is the last line of protection. If you are just relying on RPE you need to be able to justify your reasons for this.
Depending upon the work you are doing you may have to combine these measures with other controls. Think about:
– limiting the number of people near the work;
– rotating those doing the task;
– enclosing the work to stop dust escaping. Use sheeting or temporary screens;
– general mechanical ventilation to remove dusty air from the work area (eg in enclosed spaces such as
– selecting work clothes that do not keep hold of the dust.
You also need to make sure workers are doing the job in the right way and are using controls properly.
Train workers on key aspects of dust management:
- about dust risks and how this can harm their health;
- how to use the dust controls and check that they are working;
- how to maintain and clean equipment;
- how to use and look after RPE and other personal protective equipment (PPE);
- what to do if something goes wrong.
You may already have the right controls in place, but are they all working properly? Most workplaces are a constantly revolving door of incremental changes.
It pays to keep an eye on how those changes affect your dust controls.
Check the controls work by:
- Having procedures to ensure that work is done in the right way;
- Checking controls are effective. Does the work still seem dusty? You might need to carry out dust exposure monitoring;
- Involving workers. They can help identify problems and find solutions;
- Maintaining equipment: follow maintenance manuals, including;
- regularly look for signs of damage. Make repairs;
- replace disposable masks in line with
- properly clean, store, and maintain non-disposable RPE
- Change RPE filters as
recommended by the supplier;
6. Carry out a thorough examination and test of any on-tool extraction system at least every 14
7. Supervising worker – make sure they use the controls provided, follow the correct work method and attend any health surveillance where it is needed.*
*You may have to put a health surveillance programme in place which may require advice from an occupational health professional.