Construction workers warned about lung disease

Lung disease is a threat to construction workers

Every week construction workers in the UK are dying from lung disease because they have inhaled hazardous substances at work.

The seriousness of the situation prompted the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to deliver an awareness campaign during recent weeks whilst its inspectors carried out health-related site inspections.

Construction workers have a high risk of developing lung diseases because many common construction tasks – such as cutting paving blocks, kerbs, flags and roof tiles, grinding, sweeping and cutting and sanding wood – can create high dust levels.

Regularly breathing in construction dust can cause diseases like lung cancerasthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and silicosis.

However, according to the HSE the biggest occupational risk to construction workers is asbestos which can lead to several different types of lung disease.

In fact, every year around 5,000 tradespeople in the UK – or 50 a week – die as a result of past exposure to asbestos.

How is asbestos connected with lung disease?

Asbestos is known to cause two types of cancer: mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer. Mesothelioma begins in the tissue mesothelium that lines the lungs, heart, stomach and other organs and exposure to asbestos is responsible in nine out of 10 cases.

Asbestos is also linked to other serious lung diseases such as asbestosis, which is a scarring of the lungs, and diffuse pleural thickening which is a thickening of the membrane surrounding the lungs.

The reason construction workers face a high risk of developing asbestos-related lung diseases is because asbestos was used so much by the UK construction industry in the 20th century.

The natural fibrous rock acts as an insulator which means it is great at keeping heat in and keeping the cold out. It also has impressive fire protection properties and protects against corrosion.

As a result, for decades it was a staple of the UK’s construction industry and can be found in many construction materials and fittings such as ceiling tiles, pipe insulation, boilers and sprayed coating.

The use of asbestos is now banned in this country but it can still be found in buildings here which were built before the year 2000.

If asbestos is well maintained and monitored by trained experts the health risks associated with it can be managed.

However, if asbestos is disturbed or damaged – for example if someone cuts or drills into it during construction work – it releases dangerous fibres into the air which can be inhaled and cause serious lung diseases.

The picture with this blog shows why asbestos continues to be dangerous to construction and maintenance workers today. It was taken by one our senior asbestos surveyors whilst he was working onsite a few days ago. What it shows is insulation debris and asbestos warning stickers swept into a corner of a boiler room.

With all that we now know about the dangers of asbestos, it’s shocking that we’re still finding these types of dangerous situations. In this case we’re just thankful that one of our trained surveyors – all of whom wear the correct protective clothing and equipment – made this discovery rather than someone who wouldn’t appreciate the danger. 

Can we protect construction workers from lung disease caused by asbestos?

The good news is there are things that can be done to protect construction workers from the dangers of asbestos.

Firstly, before any refurbishment, demolition or construction work begins, it’s important to find out if asbestos is present – and what state it is in – through an asbestos survey.

Owners or managers of non-domestic properties have a legal duty to manage asbestos and record its presence to manage the risk of exposure to themselves, their employees and others.

The results of the asbestos survey enables them to assess the risks and put in place any control measures which are needed.

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 sets out what construction firms need to do to comply with the law. Failure to adhere to this can put workers and members of the public at risk and can leave companies, bosses and managers at risk of prosecution, huge fines and even prison sentences.

Where can I get help?

Managing asbestos on construction projects can be a daunting prospect because the risks associated with not doing this successfully are literally life-threatening.

At Acorn, we have more than 20 years of professional experience of effectively and efficiently managing asbestos. Our team works alongside businesses, authorities, schools and individuals to ensure people are protected from the dual threat of the dangers of asbestos and the danger of prosecution.

Our team can conduct a wide range of asbestos-related services, including thorough asbestos surveys, definitive air testing and UKAS accredited Asbestos Stage 4 Clearances.

So, whatever asbestos challenge you are facing, we can help you to overcome it and keep people safe.

Acorn is a professional asbestos consultancy helping organisations deal with asbestos compliance using asbestos surveysasbestos air testing, and asbestos removal management. Please call one of the team, or use the online form to obtain your free quotation. If you would like further information or advice on asbestos and asbestos training, contact the team on 0844 818 0895 or Contact Us

Neil Munro

I work in a dual role at Acorn Analytical Services focused primarily on growing and leading the business from our Northampton office base. My focus is on overseeing all sales, marketing and financial activities from Northampton. I assist clients with high-level asbestos management strategies and training. Together with Ian Stone I host our weekly podcast – Asbestos Knowledge Empire and I'm Co-author of Asbestos The Dark Arts and Fear and Loathing of Health and Safety.

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