Controlling exposures to prevent occupational lung disease in the construction industry
Protecting workers' health in construction - information sheet.
Occupational hygiene is the preventative side of occupational health: recognising the health hazards in the workplace, understanding the real risks these pose to workers’ health, and then controlling their exposures to them. It helps employers and employees to understand the health risks, and then improve working conditions and working practices through suitable, inexpensive, effective and practical exposure control measures.
When these measure are not implemented, and the dangers not fully understood the result is often serious illness, which has a devastating impact on the individuals and families of those affected.
Thousands of people suffer with ill-health which has been caused by exposure to harmful substances at work. Hearing some of their stories highlights the critical need for us to come together and act now to protect today’s construction workers so that they don’t suffer the same fate.
Simon Clark: Me and Mesothelioma
In September 2012, at the age of 52, Simon Clark was a successful electrician, running his own contracting business, happily married with two children and leading an active life. This was also when he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a terminal form of cancer that typically develops in the pleura, or outer lining of the lungs, and is caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos. Despite developing lower chest pains and breathlessness nine months earlier, undergoing numerous tests, X-rays and scans, and suffering increasing pain to the point of not being able to work by August of that year, no cause had been found. His doctor referred him to a chest consultant, but before his first specialist appointment, Simon collapsed at home and was rushed to hospital. It was the paramedic in the ambulance who asked if he had ever worked with asbestos, and – because, he realised, he had – the penny dropped and this prompt led to his diagnosis.
During training as an electrical apprentice over 30 years ago, Simon had worked extensively in schools, factories, hospitals and domestic properties, installing, maintaining, and repairing electrical wiring, equipment, and fixtures. Any premises built before 2000 can have asbestos containing materials (ACMs), such as boiler and pipe insulation, sprayed coatings, insulating boards and roofing materials, which when disturbed, damaged or removed can release the fibres into the air which are hazardous when breathed in – there is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos. Electricians are at risk of exposure when carrying out regular dusty activities, like soldering and brazing to connect wires to sockets and terminals, and drilling and riveting when assembling parts and installing, examining or removing electrical fixtures and appliances. Simon, and thousands of tradesmen like him, had no idea at the time of the dangers of asbestos, or what products and materials might contain it.
After an operation and radiotherapy, Simon was given approximately two years to live. Thankfully, he has defied this prognosis, and is still living his life as actively, constructively and beneficially as possible:
“I try to help and encourage others with this terrible disease and warn others of the dangers. I now look at life in a different way, remaining positive and above all try to be happy.”
It was a pleasure to welcome Simon and his wife Zana to the launch of Breathe Freely, where he told us more about his story and the impact that this devastating illness has had on himself, his family and his work.
Former stone worker suffering from silicosis tells his story
(As told to Dr David Fishwick, Chief Medical Officer at the Health and Safety Laboratory)
Terry was an outstandingly active youngster, playing rugby, football and cross country, as well as training in karate, even achieving a black belt and remaining exceptionally fit and involved in martial arts well into his thirties.
Having started work at 16 and then working for over 30 years with different types of stone and marble, Terry’s job as a stone mason was, he recalls, “like weight training,” requiring him to move large pieces of stone by day, which he says developed his upper body strength whilst his karate at night involved a lot of development of leg strength.
In his own words, Terry says, “I was as fit as a butcher’s dog.”
Everything changed however one day when he was on holiday in Spain. It was a warm day and Terry and his wife had been shopping in a hilly area, which, being a keen walker, had never bothered him before.
To his surprise, Terry found, as they were walking home with their groceries, that he was breathless and had chest pains.
He recalls, “I had to sit down on the pavement because I just couldn’t breathe.”
Terry knew something was wrong, especially since the pain in his chest continued for at least two weeks after returning from Spain.
He went to his GP who referred him to a lung consultant.
Terry was devastated when he was subsequently diagnosed with silicosis, a serious respiratory condition that will almost certainly shorten his life, as a result of breathing in respirable crystalline silica (RCS).
He says, “I never realised that my lungs had been damaged and it was starting to take effect on my general health … Through no fault of my own, I’d got this disease.”
The impact on Terry’s life has been profound.
He says, “I’ve always been an active person. My wife’s an active person and so are my children … I was set on the side of any activity because I can’t walk fast … I definitely can’t run. I used to do some swimming but I started to get short of breath and if you’re in the middle of the swimming pool, there’s nowhere else to go. So it was too dangerous.”
Dr Fishwick says it is clear from a description of Terry’s working life that he has been exposed to significant amounts of stone dust, particularly in the last few years of his working life where he worked with sandstone containing 90%crystalline silica.
Terry describes “intense” work with stone dust in a small area, creating the conditions for an ill health “disaster”.
Terry has the following advice for young people who are working with silica today.
He says, “All I can say to all the apprentices is who work with silica is: You must protect yourself and be aware of the regulations. You’re not being a trouble-causer. You’re not being a whistle-blower. You’re protecting your own life and other people around you. You must adhere to the regulations and your employers must adhere to the regulations.”
He adds, “While they’re young, people are invincible. They’re Johnny Concrete. They’re unbelievably strong … but eventually concrete erodes and so does your body … and you will ruin your lives by not doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Crossrail video depicts consequences of dust exposure on a worker
This video has been produced by the Crossrail Health and Safety team to encourage a focus on the health impacts that construction workers face.
It uses a fictional scenario to depict a realistic situation which can happen when basic health and safety controls are not followed.