Expert Guide to

Construction Dust

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Construction Dust

As Experts in Safety we are committed to helping you keep your workplace a safe and healthy one. Every year thousands of workers are affected by breathing airborne dust which is hazardous to their health.

Our aim is to help minimise the health risk from construction dust by providing guidance and advice on helping you manage and maintain a safe working environment, ensuring your business is meeting its legal obligations and best practice.

How many people are affected?

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In 2012/13 the HSE released their national statistics which identifies the number of people who have been affected by ill health while at work:

  • 1.1 million people who worked during the last year were suffering from an illness (long-standing as well as new cases) they believed was caused or made worse by their current or past work.
  • 2,291 people died from mesothelioma in 2011 and thousands more from other occupational cancers and diseases such as COPD.

Data refers to 2011/12 - Labour Force Survey data for ill health is not available for 2012/13.

When risks are not controlled they can have devastating effects on a person's life. Frequently breathing in harmful levels of construction dust, can cause an array of illnesses such as:


  • Silica is one of the other major causes of occupational cancer
  • The construction industry has the largest burden of occupational cancer, contributing to 3,500 cancer deaths and 5,500 cancer registrations each year

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

  • Research shows that about 15% of COPD is likely to be work-related. This suggests there could be around 4,000 occupational COPD deaths each year in Great Britain
  • COPD is common in later life: it is likely that over a million individuals currently have the disease in Great Britain and there are over 25,000 deaths each year
  • Work place exposures likely to contribute to COPD include various dusts (including, coal, grain, and silica) as well as certain fumes and chemicals (including welding fume, isocyanates, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons)


  • Occupational asthma is an allergic reaction that can occur in some people when they are exposed to substances
  • These substances are called 'respiratory sensitisers' or asthmagens. They can cause a change in people's airways, known as the 'hypersensitive state'

What activities cause dust?

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Diseases Caused:

Occupational Asthma

Breathing in construction dust is a significant health risk and may cause long term serious damage to a person's life. Many people working in the construction industry are not aware of the dangers. Regularly breathing in construction dust over a long period of time can cause life changing lung diseases. Typically it takes several years for the effects of exposure to construction dust to develop and when symptoms arise it may mean permanent disability or early death.

Construction sites are known to generate high dust levels due to the tasks involved. 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 amount of silica dust that would result in a person exposed to the legal unit is shown below next to the penny.

Before any dusty activities begin, such as those listed below, the type of construction dust which may be generated should be considered. Working methods and procedures for preventing airborne dust arising in the first place should be top priority. If airborne dust cannot be avoided, then working methods for minimising the amount of airborne dust generated and breathed in must be followed. Personal protective equipment must only be considered as a last resort, after all other avenues for control of dust exposure have been explored.

A specialist advisor, such as an occupational hygienist, may be required to provide guidance on the level of risk posed by particular dusts and the appropriate control measures for specific circumstances.

Common dusty activities:

  • Wall chasing
  • Grinding and sanding
  • Block and stone cutting
  • Drilling
  • Sweeping floors
  • Cutting of softwood, hardwood and wood based products
  • Movement of rubble during site clearance
  • Demolition
  • Carpentry

HSE: Construction Dust -

How do I assess the risk?

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Identifying materials with the potential to create airborne dust should form part of the risk assessment. Appropriate control measures can then be selected to protect employees and others who may be affected.

Firstly, potentially hazardous materials need to be identified and secondly, to whom they may cause harm. Consideration should be given to whether the general public, bystanders etc. may be affected.

Attention should be given to the following:

  • What the task involves, including equipment and tools
  • The environment / work area
  • How long will the task take
  • Frequency of the task throughout the day

Persons conducting the risk assessment need to be trained and competent to do so.

Control the dust risk

Once the hazard has been recognised, reasonably practicable control measures must be developed according to the risk and applied to each task to ensure the health and safety of your employees and any others.

Before the work commences, as a first priority, establish whether the generation of airborne dust can be prevented or reduced. If the dust risk cannot be eliminated, then the following measures may need to be enforced to reduce the risk:

  • Try using a less risky material; the safety data sheets will highlight the content, for example silica-free abrasives
  • Organise work to reduce the exposure to the dust, for example using less powerful tools, introduce water or on-tool dust extraction
  • At times, water or on-tool dust extraction will not provide sufficient control. As a last resort Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) will need to be issued
  • Ensure employees are trained and are competent to use the dust control measures and RPE
  • Face fit testing is required for all tight fitting face pieces
  • Health surveillance is about having regular checks on workers' health to check that control measures are working. The surveillance identifies early signs of ill health - acting on the results helps ensure that adequate control measures are being followed

Record and review findings

The aim of the risk assessment is to ensure that all the control procedures are appropriate to the risk, effective and properly implemented. Make sure that all employees are informed about the procedures and ensure they are trained and are competent; this includes the planning, supervision and the supply and maintenance of equipment.

Regular checks are required to ensure that the control measures stay in place and are being properly used. It is the employer's responsibility to have someone in place that is competent to do this. It is best to review your risk assessment on an ongoing basis to formally check that the changes are working and identify any improvements that need to be made. This should be done at regular intervals determined by the nature of the work, if there is an incident or if the task or materials change.

HSE: Respiratory Diseases -
HSE: Construction Information Sheet No 36 (Revision 2) -
HSE: Five steps to risk assessment -

Construction Dust Partnership

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Arco are proud members of the Construction Dust Partnership (CDP), the partnership is a joint construction industry and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) collaboration directly involving many organisations.

The aim of the partnership is to raise awareness of managers, supervisors and workers, to ensure effective control measures are always put in place and followed. The CDP provides industry with advice, information and guidance that can be used to help raise awareness about the risks from construction dust and what needs to be done to protect workers.

For more information visit,

British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS)

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What is occupational hygiene?

Occupational hygiene is a unique and highly skilled discipline which uses science and engineering to control or eliminate workplace hazards and create healthier workplaces, in the most efficient and effective ways.

With good occupational hygiene science and practice, occupational health risks can be eliminated or at least brought under control. It is possible, today, to be a healthy miner; the ill health effects of working with or near asbestos, and how to avoid them, are well understood; silicosis amongst pottery workers can be prevented. These are just some of the major achievements of occupational hygiene.

Today's workers however continue to be exposed to health hazards such as harmful dusts, which can cause debilitating and often fatal diseases such as cancer, COPD and asthma. These risks will always need to be properly understood and managed, through good occupational hygiene practice.

When do you need the services of an occupational hygienist?

Employers are required by law to appoint 'competent persons' to assist them in complying with their statutory duties in health and safety. Within large organisations, occupational hygienists often play this role as regards regulations on, for example, hazardous substances, asbestos, lead and noise. Where specialist expertise is not available within the organisation, employers often contract occupational hygiene support services from external consultants. Those with professional qualifications in occupational hygiene are uniquely suited to this task.

Finding a qualified occupational hygienist

BOHS, the Chartered Society for worker health protection, is the only professional society representing qualified occupational hygienists in the UK. The Society's Faculty of Occupational Hygiene sets professional standards and is the only UK examining board for qualifications in occupational hygiene which are recognised internationally. It also awards the coveted title of 'Chartered Occupational Hygienist' to practising members who are qualified at the highest level. BOHS publishes The Directory of Occupational Hygiene Consultants which lists consultancies able to provide qualified and experienced occupational hygienists and specialist occupational hygiene support services, with coverage throughout the UK

For further details, see


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