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Health Hazards in Construction. Developed by the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) May, 2011. What this presentation covers. This module gives a general overview of the various health hazards to which construction workers may be exposed:. Chemical Hazards

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health hazards in construction

Health Hazards in Construction

Developed by the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH)

May, 2011

what this presentation covers
What this presentation covers

This module gives a general overview of the various health hazards to which construction workers may be exposed:

  • Chemical Hazards
  • Physical Hazards
  • Biological Hazards
  • Ergonomic Hazards

Construction work is dynamic, diverse, and constantly changing. This poses a great challenge in protecting the health and safety of construction workers.


Construction workers are at risk of exposure to various health hazards that can result in injury, illness, disability, or even death.

risk factors in construction

Factors increasing the health risk of construction workers include:

Risk Factors in Construction
  • constantly changing job site environments and conditions
  • multiple contractors and subcontractors
  • high turnover; unskilled laborers
  • constantly changing relationships with other work groups
  • diversity of work activities occurring simultaneously
  • exposures to health hazards resulting from own work as well as from nearby activities (“bystander exposure”)
types of health hazards

Health hazards are generally grouped as:

Types of Health Hazards
  • Chemical
  • Physical
  • Biological
  • Ergonomic

Ergonomic hazards are the most frequently occurring health hazards in construction and the cause of most injuries.

chemical hazards

Chemicals can exist in the form of:

    • dusts, fumes, fibers (solids)
    • liquids, mists
    • gases, vapors
Chemical Hazards

Chemicals are found in variety of products used at construction sites. Workers may also be exposed to chemicals generated during construction activities.

Examples of chemical hazards found in construction work:

  • asbestos
  • lead
  • silica
  • cadmium
  • carbon monoxide
  • welding fumes
  • spray paints
  • cutting oil mists
  • solvents
  • hexavalent chromium
chemical hazards8

Chemicals can enter the body through:

Chemical Hazards
  • inhalation
  • breathed in

Inhalation is typically the most common way chemicals can enter the body in a work situation.

  • ingestion
  • accidental swallowing through eating, drinking, or smoking
  • absorption
  • absorbed through contact with skin or eyes

Injection, in which a chemical enters the body when the skin is punctured, occurs rarely (e.g., paint from a high-pressure spray gun).

chemical hazards9

Two types of health effects from chemical exposure

Chemical Hazards

Some chemicals can have both acute and chronic effects, e.g., carbon monoxide.




Construction workers may be exposed to asbestos during demolition or remodeling of older buildings built before 1980 which can contain asbestos insulation, or other asbestos containing products. Asbestos removal can only be done by specially trained asbestos workers.

Asbestos exposure can cause breathing problems, lung cancer and cancer of the lung lining many years after exposure.

asbestos pipe insulation


Welding Fumes

Welding fumes contain a variety of chemicals depending on what is being welded on, chemical makeup of welding rods, fluxes and shielding gases.

Generally, welding in confined spaces or welding on stainless steel which generates hexavalent chromium, are the most hazardous welding activities.

Welding in a confined space

Welding on a stainless steel tank



A variety of solvents with varying degrees of toxicity are used in construction. They are in paints, glues, epoxies and other products.

Generally, the possibility of exposure to excessive amounts of solvent vapors is greater when solvents are handled in enclosed or confined spaces.

Solvents can:

- Irritate your eyes, nose or throat,

- Make you dizzy, high, sleepy, give you a headache or cause you to pass out,

- Affect your judgment or coordination,

- Cause internal damage to your body,

- Dry out or irritate your skin.


Silica – more than just dust

Silica or quartz dust exposure is very common in construction from drilling, cutting or grinding on concrete, sandblasting, rock drilling or in masonry work.

Exposure to excessive silica dust causes lung scarring and lung disease over time.

Brick cutting

Concrete cutting

Blowing concrete dust with compressed air



Construction workers can be exposed to lead on bridge repair work, lead paint removal on metal structures or buildings or demolition of old buildings with lead paint, or using lead solder.

Lead is highly toxic and can cause severe, long term health problems.


Confined Spaces

Exposure to chemicals or lack of oxygen in confined spaces can be deadly.

Airborne chemicals can quickly reach dangerous levels in confined spaces that are not ventilated. Carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, welding fumes and solvent vapors are typical confined space chemical hazards.

In some confined spaces, oxygen deficiency will cause the person entering to instantly collapse.

As many co-workers who attempt rescue die in confined spaces as the original worker who collapsed.

Confined spaces include manholes, sewers, vaults, tanks, and boilers in new construction or in repair and maintenance work.

physical hazards

Physical hazards are different types of energy which may be hazardous to workers. They include:

Physical Hazards
  • Noise
  • Vibration
    • Temperature extremes
    • Radiation
physical hazards noise

Probable noise levels of some common construction equipment at operator’s ear

Physical Hazards – Noise

Prolonged exposure to excessive noise levels can cause noise-induced hearing loss. Noise levels above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss.

When you are exposed to excessive noise levels, the first stage is temporary hearing loss.

Over time, the hearing loss becomes permanent.

Source: U.W. Dept. of Environmental & Occupational Health Services – Rick Neitzel July, 2005

physical hazards noise18

Several factors influence the noise levels to which workers are exposed:

Physical Hazards – Noise
  • Type of equipment being operated
  • Condition/maintenance of the equipment
  • Other equipment running at the same time
  • Enclosed or partially enclosed spaces

High noise levels can be sporadic in construction. Damage to hearing is cumulative and exposure limits are based on 8-hour averages. Workers not using or operating equipment are often exposed to excessive noise as much as the operators.

physical hazards whole body vibration
Physical Hazards – Whole Body Vibration

Whole-body vibration can occur from operating large mobile equipment, such as drillers, air hammers, pile drivers, tractors, graders, excavators, earth-moving equipment, and other large machinery.

physical hazards vibration
Physical Hazards – Vibration

Hand-arm vibration can result from using hand-held power tools, such as pneumatic drills and hammers, and disc grinders.

Hand-arm vibration may cause carpal tunnel syndrome, a disease that affects the fingers and hands. In the long run, permanent damages to the nerves will result in a loss of the sense of touch and dexterity.

Working in a cold and damp environment can aggravate the harmful effects of hand-arm vibration.

physical hazards temperature extremes
Physical Hazards – Temperature Extremes

Heavy work in high temperatures can cause muscle cramps, dehydration, sudden collapse, and unconsciousness.

Cold temperatures can lead to fatigue, irregular breathing, confusion, and loss of consciousness (hypothermia).

A change in body temperature due to extreme work environmental conditions can lead to stress or illness from heat or cold. If not treated in time, both heat and cold stress/illness can develop into life-threatening situations.

Heat illnesses:

Cold illnesses and injuries:

  • Heat rash
  • Fainting
  • Heat cramps
  • Heat exhaustion
  • Heat stroke
  • Frost nip
  • Immersion injury (trench foot)
  • Frost bite
  • Hypothermia
physical hazards heat

Hot conditions can occur from:

Physical Hazards – Heat
  • prolonged work under direct sunlight in summer (e.g., asphalt paving or roofing in summer)
  • wearing impermeable protective clothing when doing heavy work
  • working in an enclosed area with a strong heat source, poor ventilation, and high humidity (e.g., heavy equipment operators in an enclosed cab with without sufficient ventilation)
physical hazards cold

Cold conditions:

Physical Hazards – Cold
  • cold air temperatures
  • rain, snow, sleet, or other wet weather conditions
  • windy conditions
  • underground construction work
  • working over water and falling in
physical hazards ionizing radiation
Physical Hazards – Ionizing Radiation
  • X-rays and gamma rays from equipment used to gauge the density and thickness of pipes, to inspect welds, or for detecting weakness of metal structures
  • radioactive isotopes from flow meters

Health effects: increased risk of developing cancer and genetic disease.

physical hazards non ionizing radiation

ultraviolet light from sunlight & welding

  • infrared radiation from torch welding and cutting
  • radio waves from radio transmission devices ( roof-top dishes & antennas)
  • lasers used for aligning, ranging, and surveying are usually low-powered but can cause eye injuries if directly viewed for extended time
Physical Hazards – non-ionizing radiation

Welding ultraviolet light

Health effects:

  • premature skin aging
  • burns
  • skin cancer
  • eye damage

Rooftop radio antenna

biological hazards

Diseases or illnesses can occur from biological sources:

Biological Hazards
  • Microorganisms (e.g., bacteria, viruses, fungi, molds)
  • West Nile virus
  • Lyme Disease
  • Histoplasmosis (fungus in bird droppings)
  • Hantavirus
  • poison oak & sumac;
  • stinging nettles
  • Plant toxins

Poison oak

Some of these diseases are minor infections; others can be serious or deadly.

biological hazards27

Exposure may occur during demolition, renovation, sewer work, work on air handling systems, or other construction work from contact with contaminated or disease-carrying:

Biological Hazards
  • soil
  • water
  • insects (mosquitoes, ticks)
  • bird or bat droppings
  • animals
  • structures

Pigeon droppings in abandoned building

ergonomic hazards
Ergonomic Hazards
  • heavy, frequent, or awkward lifting
  • repetitive tasks
  • awkward grips, postures
  • using excessive force, overexertion
  • using wrong tools for the job or using tools improperly
  • using improperly maintained tools
  • hand-intensive work

Ergonomic hazards can cause painful and disabling injuries to joints and muscles. The can occur from:

Ergonomic hazards are the most frequently occurring health hazards in construction and the cause of most injuries.

ergonomic hazards29

can lead to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and injuries:

Ergonomic Hazards
  • strains and sprains –

one of the most common injuries among construction workers

  • tendonitis
  • carpal tunnel syndrome
  • low back pain
  • fatigue

Multiple health hazards

In some cases, workers can be exposed to several health hazards at the same time or on the same worksite over time.

This worker is simultaneously exposed to noise, silica dust, vibration and ergonomic hazards.

more information
More Information
  • L & I General Workplace Safety and Health

  • More in-depth modules on several of the topics covered in this module can be found at:

  • OSHA: OSHA Assistance for the Construction Industry
  • NIOSH: Construction : NIOSH Construction Program | CDC/NIOSH
  • Construction Association of Ontario :
  • Center for Research on Occupational & Environmental Toxicology: CROETweb: Construction Safety and Health — General Information

DOSH Consultation Services

For assistance in assessing workplace health hazards, you can contact our Consultation Services. They are:

  • By employer invitation only
  • Free
  • Confidential
  • Result in no citations or penalties

Safety & Health program review and worksite evaluation

After consultation visit, you will receive a letter explaining findings. Your only obligation is correct any serious hazards found.

For additional assistance, you can call one of our consultants. Click below for local L & I office locations: