SafetySmart

Concrete Construction Health Effects

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Courtesy of SafetySmart

It’s no secret that working in Concrete Construction is dangerous. The immediate safety hazards are well known. Getting speared or cut on rebar, sore from the hard physical labor; cuts or punctures from nails; and struck by tools, materials or equipment can all cause injuries. Add to that possible falls especially at the leading edge; cuts or shock from powered equipment; burns or explosion from heating equipment; carbon monoxide from poorly maintained/ventilated equipment; outdoor heat or cold; and the hazards caused by other crews.

But there are also hazards that can cause severe delayed health effects. Some are more widely recognized than others, like the more severe injuries that build up over time to tendons, ligaments, rotator cuffs and spinal disks. These can be the result of the ongoing hard physical labor. What most people don’t realize is that vibration can increase the chance for some of these injuries. For this reason it is important to avoid (as much as possible) risk factors like jumping, twisting, awkward postures and using high force immediately after operating vibrating equipment. Manufacturers are now making lower vibration equipment and tools that transfers less of the vibration to hands and arms. Maintaining equipment in good working order and considering the amount of vibration when replacing tools and equipment can help avoid future injuries.

Also well-known are the short term skin irritation and the chance of mild to severe burns from the caustic in concrete. Part of the problem here is that the worker may not even feel the burn for hours allowing the burn to become severe (for example when concrete gets into a worker’s boot or glove). So clothing should prevent skin contact. Any concrete that does get on the skin should be washed off whether it feels like it is burning or not. It is important to use clean water, since the water in the rinse bucket will also contain an unknown amount of caustic.

But there is another reason to keep concrete off the skin. Most concrete contains small amounts of hexavalent chromium which can cause an irritating to painful allergic skin condition called sensitization. It may last for a long time and get worse with repeated contact. This allergic reaction can take days, months or years to develop or may never occur. With repeated contact it’s possible to have a very severe long lasting reaction with very little contact. That makes it very important to recognize the symptoms early and avoid further contact.

Hearing loss is far more common in construction than is generally recognized. Although the OSHA reported rate is less than one per 10,000 workers, studies show that 20% of construction workers are aware of having hearing loss. When tested, 40% to 80% of construction workers show hearing loss depending on their trade. Manufacturers are now making lower noise equipment and tools. Maintaining equipment in good working order; considering the amount of noise when replacing tools and equipment; and using proper hearing protection can help prevent hearing loss.

The silica in concrete and other building materials has gotten a lot more attention in recent years. Silica causes progressive lung disease that kills 700 people per year and disables many more. When tested almost 50% of masonry and concrete workers have reduced lung function and almost 20% have an abnormal chest x-ray. If you can see concrete dust from any activity, it almost always indicates a hazardous level even if it is only intermittent. Furthermore, you don’t have to be able to see silica dust for it to reach a hazardous level. The amount of silica in the air can be reduced by using a water spray or by collecting the dust as it forms with a HEPA vacuum. In many cases respiratory protection such as a NIOSH/MSHA approved dust mask is still needed.

Other delayed health effects include: skin cancer from sunlight and diesel exhaust caused cancer, aggravated allergies or aggravated asthma. Studies in Europe have also shown an increased rate of other cancers in concrete construction workers.

Preventing immediate injuries during concrete construction is both important and demanding. But to prevent possible severe delayed health effects requires additional precautions. Some of the most important controls to reduce the chance of delayed negative health effects include:

  • Devices, tools and work practices to reduce risk factors for muscle related injuries such as: high force; repetition; awkward, fixed or unsupported work positions; and vibration;
  • An ongoing process to evaluate risk factors and improve controls (including, for example, selecting the highest slump within the specified range to make the concrete easier to move);
  • Skin protection, fresh water supply and non-alkaline, non-abrasive soap;
  • Reduced noise and vibration equipment purchased as equipment is replaced;
  • Hearing protection adequate and consistently worn properly when it is too loud to hear someone talk without shouting; and
  • Training in importance of early reporting, skin protection, burns, sensitization and work practices that reduce ergonomic risk factors.

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