Jim describes different sources of respiratory hazards on construction sites and explains the hierarchy of controls for hazard protection. He also discusses the use of respirators and other personal protective equipment (PPE).
- The last category of health hazards that I'll cover, are respiratory hazards. One of the things that we tend to do on construction sites, is we kick up a lot of particles into the air. Now some of these particles are small enough to breathe in through our nose and mouth. And some are small enough to make it all the way into the airways in our lungs. And then some of these particles are small enough to pass even further through our lungs, and enter into what we call the gas exchange region, where these particles disrupt the basic function of our lungs, which is to get oxygen to our blood.
Now these are really small particles. They're called respirable particles, and they're tiny. About five microns in size, meaning that they're much smaller than we can see. But the particles that we're breathing don't have to be that small to cause harm. Now when we talk about respiratory hazards on construction sites, a lot of people think about asbestos. This was a mineral. It was very common in construction products like drywall and ceiling tiles, due to it's fireproofing properties. Unfortunately, when this material is disturbed later, like when we go in and do renovations, it fractures into particles small enough to enter our lungs, and it causes a very specific type of lung cancer.
Another material that used to be common in construction materials, was lead. Lead paint was really common in the industry at one time. So, again, today the issue is that when we do renovations, and we sand off the lead paint, those small particles can get inhaled, and make it all the way into our bloodstream. And the consequences there can be damaged brain cells, the liver, and even our reproductive organs. Another common respiratory hazard on construction sites, is what's commonly referred to as silica dust.
Now silica is one of the most common elements on earth, and it's really present in almost all sand and gravel. The issue in this case, is not that the sand is hazardous, but rather that when we grind, or cut, or we drill, or jackhammer, anything that contains silica, we create those very, very small particles that we call crystalline respirable silica. And these particles are really only ever created during those types of operations. And they're just of a size and shape that allows them to enter the tissues in our lungs, and our bodies just don't seem to be able to get rid of them.
So they sit there, and they cause permanent scarring in the lungs, which makes it difficult to breathe as this condition progresses. Now silica exists in concrete, asphalt, drywall, drywall mud. Virtually anything that contains sand or gravel products. So, this is a common issue in construction. So what do we do about all of this? In cases where we can reasonably expect exposure, we need a respiratory protection plan. Now this plan needs to fit the site-specific conditions, in order to properly estimate those exposure levels.
And, again, it takes a trained and qualified individual to do this analysis, and work up a plan. The plan might take one or more, of several different approaches to control the exposure. First, it might consider eliminating the hazard, by substituting a product that's not hazardous. Not always feasible, but always the best choice if it is. After that, we look for different engineering controls to lower exposure. For example, using a wet saw when we cut masonry blocks, instead of a dry saw, helps eliminate that silica dust.
It knocks it down before we can breathe it. Or, using a proper vacuum attachment with a filter on something like a grinder, that can suck up the dust before it becomes a respiratory hazard. Now next in line in this hierarchy of controls, would be what we call work practice controls. In other words, can I limit the amount of time a person is exposed, and keep them at safe exposure levels that way? After all these other methods of control are considered, and we determine that exposure levels are still too high, then we turn to personal protective equipment, or PPE.
And I really do want to analyze all those other methods of exposure control first, and use those to the fullest extent possible, because PPE is my last line of defense. Using PPE really says, I can't control the hazardous levels that I or my people will be exposed to, so I'm going to have to have them breathe through a mask that filters the particles out of the air. Now the use of a respirator shouldn't be taken lightly. Yes, they work. And these days they work really well.
They're smaller and more comfortable than they used to be, and manufacturers make some really high-efficiency filters. However, for these to work properly, you have to breathe all of your air through the filter. There can't be any gaps. The mask has to fit tight against your face, and it has to form a seal. You have to be fit tested, to make sure that they're going to work, and, for somebody like me, I'd have to shave in order to get that proper seal between the mask and my face. No matter how efficient the filter, it's always going to be harder to breathe through that filter, than it is to just breathe normally.
So this means that we have to consider a person's medical fitness, before we put them in a respirator. Or, really a medical professional needs to consider it. So, for example, someone with asthma, may or may not be medically cleared to breathe through a respirator. Respiratory protection is important anytime we're stirring up dust that might contain hazardous materials. But another condition might be when we're applying materials or coatings that are hazardous to breathe. For example, painters using a sprayer in an enclosed room, is a good example of a procedure that needs respiratory protection.
Take respiratory protection seriously. Get a competent person to properly evaluate any condition where you can reasonably expect hazardous materials to be kicked into the air. Pay special attention to any demolition or renovation operations, where you may not always have good data on that material that you're disturbing. I know in construction, we do tend to focus more on those safety issues, but you need to protect your health too. It's really hard to recover from some of these conditions, and some of them are just not fixable.
Throughout this course, Jim highlights some of the most notable safety and health hazards in the industry—including fall hazards, traffic accidents, and respiratory hazards—and shares strategies for integrating safety, quality, and productivity. He also explains how to leverage technological advancements such as digital drawings to help your team work safer and smarter.
- Recognizing health hazards in the industry
- Integrating safety, quality, and productivity
- Creating a culture of learning
- Recognizing leading indicators
- Using digital solutions to improve safety
- Using BIM to identify hazards early