As construction business owners endeavor to protect workers from injuries on their worksites, sometimes their health can be overlooked in the name of preventing incidents, according to the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s Construction Committee. However, “just as safety risks are controlled on construction sites, health risks can also be controlled,” according to guidance issued in August by the organization.
“Occupational illnesses can have a significant impact on construction workers and their families. These illnesses and resulting disorders can cut careers short, cause pain and disability, and cause premature death,” according to the report. “If you think of workplace injuries as the visible ‘tip of the iceberg’ for on-the-job hazards, then occupational illnesses represent the much larger—but hidden—hazard.”
Inspired by OSHA’s Focus Four program, which targets the top four construction safety hazards, AIHA identified the top four health hazards for construction workers.
Manual material handling. Carrying large or heavy objects and materials, and maintaining awkward postures, can lead to overexertion, the report noted, which can cause injuries to a worker’s soft tissues, muscles or tendons. A single incident might not be enough to cause pain, but repeated exertion over long periods of time can lead to musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), AIHA wrote.
MSDs associated with materials handling most commonly affect backs, shoulders, knees, hands and arms. While they can be as minor as a temporary sprain, they can also permanently injure workers and cause recurring problems.
Noise. Loud worksites can lead to permanent hearing loss, and some research shows high noise levels can lead to sleep disturbance, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, depression or poor balance, according to AIHA.
Hearing loss comes on slowly and may not be noticed right away, the paper pointed out. Noise levels above 85 decibels, a limit most construction equipment exceeds, can cause hearing loss. “Still, noise hazards tend to be overlooked on construction worksites: They are more often considered an annoyance or an obstacle to communication than an important health hazard,” AIHA wrote.
Air contaminants. Dust, vapors, gasses and fumes are created in the course of construction work that have different toxicity levels. Illnesses may not be present for years after exposure, AIHA pointed out, which makes it harder to understand the risks associated with a particular contaminant.
Asbestos, asphalt, lead, sawdust and silica are just some of the contaminants a construction worker or trade worker might be exposed to. While the nose, throat and lungs are most commonly affected, depending on the type of contaminant, problems may arise associated with a workers’ nervous or reproductive system, heart, kidneys or skin.
High temperatures. Anyone working outdoors has to plan for heat and sun exposure, but these can be problems even when working in the shelter of unventilated, partially completed buildings. The protective equipment used to prevent other injuries or illnesses can increase the chances of a heat-related illness.
When heat exposure is an issue, employers need to consider who will be on site. Workers can become acclimatized to heat after a few days and can work more effectively at slightly higher temperatures than those who aren’t. However, it only takes a few days away from the jobsite to lose that acclimatization effect. The type of work and where it will be conducted will also affect heat risks.
Conducting job hazard analyses for each task a worker might be asked to do can help employers mitigate health and safety risks those workers will be exposed to. AIHA recommends that each JHA include the steps involved in a task, the environment in which it will be performed and the tools required to complete it safely.
The guidance, “Focus Four for Health: An Initiative to Address Four Major Construction Health Hazards,” can be found at aiha.org.
Danielle Andrus was previously the managing editor for Colorado Builder, and is currently Editor for the Journal of Financial Planning.