Construction dust — a hidden killer

To put it bluntly, construction dust kills.

George Elliott, technical specialist at science-based technology company 3M, is interviewed on the potential hazards of working with construction dust and methods for minimising the health risk.

Why is controlling hazardous construction dust such an important issue?

To put it bluntly, construction dust kills. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 43 workers were fatality injured in the UK construction sector in 2015/16 as a result of workplace accidents . This is a frightfully high number. However, it is less than a tenth of the number of deaths of construction workers as a result of exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS). The HSE estimates that RCS is responsible for around 500 deaths a year in the UK construction sector, or nearly 10 a week .

Also, most workers understand why they need to wear a hard hat, or fall protection equipment if they’re working at height, because the risks are pretty obvious and can be easily visualised.

Caucasian worker at construction site

Construction dust, on the other hand, is something of a hidden killer, as the potentially fatal respiratory diseases it causes are typically the result of years of exposure.

Cutting Concrete

Have you found that awareness of this issue is growing? If so, why?

The CDP is doing excellent work to increase awareness of this issue, which is why initiatives like our collaborative webinar are so important. However, we mustn’t be complacent, as there is always more we could be doing.

What can companies/employers/health and safety managers do to control construction dust hazards?

When faced with an industrial hazard, health and safety managers will look to reduce risks to the lowest practicable levels. Typically, they will consider and employ the following hierarchy of controls:

The first control to consider is elimination – can you eliminate the hazard in the first place?

The second is substitution – could you substitute the building material or tool equipment you’re using for something less hazardous?

Next is engineering controls – for example, could you use water suppression to dampen down the dust and stop it becoming airborne, or alternatively use on-tool extraction to remove the majority of dust at source?

Then comes administration – if someone doesn’t need to be in the hazardous area, make sure they aren’t. Some companies are now using designated cutting areas on site, in order to contain dust to one area.

Finally, personal protective equipment (PPE) control measures should always be seen as the last line of defence. With silica dust in particular, the HSE suggest that a minimum assigned protection factor (APF) of 20 is required.

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What role does training and education have to play?

Training and education is important for increasing employees’ awareness of the potential hazards they face. Those who understand the risks are far more likely to properly use the control measures available to them on site, such as extraction systems and respiratory protective equipment.

Where can people find additional resources?

The CDP’s website – – is full of useful resources. For example, the website contains a ‘toolbox talk’ that’s easy for health and safety managers and others to download and present to workers. The CDP also provides downloadable posters, which help to raise awareness of the consequences of not wearing respiratory protective equipment, for example, or not putting other control measures in place. There are also case studies on the website, giving examples of companies that have controlled dust on site using best practice methods – which could potentially be replicated.


To check out our webinars visit 3M Safety Spotlight

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