Whitecard update: Hazards to the Health of Construction Workers

Workers in the construction industry face a number of health and safety hazards on their sites each day. Various tradesmen have to operate at the same time in a confined space on a site which makes the possibility on injury greater.

Some of the hazards that workers face involve exposure to materials that can cause serious illness and affect the worker’s long term health. Here we have included some of the materials that may cause damage or injury to workers health and safety and how they can be overcome.

Wood and Wood Dust

Construction workers are often involved in doing flooring and wall panelling and therefore have to handle large amounts of particleboard or fibreboard. These wood boards or panels contain a potentially deadly chemical, called formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is suspected of contributing to cancer in humans which is what makes it such a threat.

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Construction workers are involved in sawing, drilling, sanding and other machine work that generates large amounts of wood dust. This wood dust becomes dangerous when it is airborne. Inhaling formaldehyde can cause burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat and a range of other symptoms in extreme cases.

Nasal Cancer among wood workers is common because large wood dust particles can become easily trapped in the nasal passage. Chronic lung disease can also result from inhaling wood dust which drastically reduces the functioning of the lungs.

Occupational asthma is another side effect of this type of work. Woods such as oak, western red cedar and blackwood are known causes. Allergic diseases may be caused by handling and working with timber contaminated with fungi or moulds.

So how can this type of hazard be managed? Employers need to provide an efficient dust extraction system to control wood dust. Also the effectiveness of PPE cannot be underestimated. Suitable personal protection (in the form of dust masks and eye protection) must be worn when machining wood at all times. Good housekeeping is also important. The work area should be cleaned daily and wood dust removed.  To prevent the formaldehyde in custom woods from causing cancer, make sure that the work area is well ventilated.

Synthetic Mineral Fibres (SMF)

Another danger posed to construction workers are synthetic mineral fibres (SMF). There are products commonly used in construction of buildings, made from fibreglass, rockwool and ceramic. These are fibrous products which are widely used in buildings for thermal insulation and sound protection. This means that workers that are at risk include laggers, plumbers and carpenters.

Some experts even fear that these fibres could be as dangerous to workers health as asbestos because they have similar side effects.  Some of these fibres are less dangerous and cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat. Others, such as fibreglass are more dangerous and can cause lung cancer.

Employers should provide workers with suitable respirators and protective clothing. Workers have a responsibility to wear the PPE provided if they are exposed to the hazard.


Chemicals or solvents are commonly used by various workers on a construction site for degreasing, cleaning and painting and are also found in glues, paints and varnishes.

Solvents are chemicals that are easily evaporated which results in workers breathing in the toxic fumes.  Exposure to the vapour or liquid form can have both short and long-term effects on the construction worker’s health.

Exposure to solvents can also be absorbed through the skin rather than inhaled and may still cause damage.

Short term side effects may include headaches, nausea, drowsiness and dermatitis. The effects of repeated exposure include kidney damage, liver and skin problems. These solvents also have the ability of affecting a person’s mental state and nervous system causing sleep disorders, short-term memory loss and dementia.

Provision of information by the employer, to the workers is important and required by WH&S regulations.

Workers will be provided with site specific training that should incorporate the dangerous substance that workers will be exposed to on site and how to effectively manage this hazard. While these are not the only hazardous substances workers will have to endure on site, similar prevention methods can be used to prevent them causing harm to workers.