Lung disease in construction

How much of a problem is lung disease in the construction industry? And what can be done about it?

Mavis Nye and mesothelioma – a case study

Mavis Nye was diagnosed with mesothelioma 49 years after she was exposed to asbestos dust. And it wasn’t Mavis that worked with dust – she breathed it in from her husband’s clothes after he came home from work covered in it.

Since her diagnosis, Mavis has set up a registered charity called the Mavis Nye Foundation, as well as a social network of support groups for mesothelioma, known as the ‘mesowarriors’ – with global reach.

She does lots of work to raise awareness of dust as an occupational health hazard and is passionate about encouraging construction workers to protect themselves and look after their respiratory health.

Mavis’ story and her work emphasise why it’s so important to be aware of the hazard of dust and do everything we can to protect construction workers and their families from developing health issues.
If you want to donate to Mavis’ cause, you can do so on the Mavis Nye Foundation donation page.

Raising awareness of occupational lung disease

Every year, 3,000 construction workers suffer from breathing and lung problems that are caused or made worse by their work1.

3,000 workers is too many. We want to raise awareness of the symptoms of these health issues, to help construction workers and employers spot them earlier – so they can make changes to reduce exposure to hazards and prevent problems from developing.

Workers are often exposed to dust, fumes and other irritating substances, which can cause a range of respiratory issues – including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and even lung cancer.

So, what is occupational lung disease?

Occupational lung disease is a term that covers many conditions. It causes significant ill health and reducing it is one of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) priorities. A number of conditions are caused by exposure to chemicals or dust at work, and can, in some cases, lead to lung cancer. The most common conditions are:

  • COPD
  • occupational asthma
  • silicosis
  • asbestosis
  • asbestos-related lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Symptoms to look out for

Symptoms are very similar for many of the conditions and medical advice should always be sought. But the signs to look out for include:

  • shortness of breath
  • a cough which may produce mucus, wheeziness
  • frequent chest infections.

Dangers of dust at work, including asbestos and silica

Some of the common causes in construction (although there may be others) include:

  • cement
  • plasterboard dust
  • respirable crystalline silica (RCS)
  • asbestos
  • hardwood dust
  • isocyanates (commonly found in two-pack spray paint, polyurethane foam, adhesives, plastics or varnish, etc)
  • rosin-based solder flux fume.

Why should we care about occupational lung disease?

It’s important to remember that occupational lung disease is preventable – it doesn’t have to be inevitable.

Many employers ensure their workers wear face masks to protect themselves from dust exposure that could lead to breathing problems later in life. Yet the statistics on occupational lung disease in the construction industry remain high.

Unfortunately, health-at-work never receives the same focus as safety and face masks are often used rather than using control measures to reduce the exposure. But better and more consistent occupational health check-ups could help lower the rate of occupational lung disease by catching cases earlier and allowing employers and workers to take preventative action.

Many cases of occupational lung disease aren’t noticed until years – even decades – after the exposure to dust hazards at work has taken place. And it’s not just the worker who’s at risk. Family members could be too, as shown by Mavis and Ray’s experience.

What should employers do?

Employers need to think how any work that’s carried out might involve substances that can cause harm.

They must carry out a risk assessment that measures or estimates the exposure to these substances and how the risk of harm can be reduced. Ultimately, they should aim to prevent exposure to minimise the risk. They should also:

  • provide information, instruction and training to employees so that they understand the risks and what is being done to reduce those risks
  • provide appropriate health check-ups if, despite control measures, there’s still a risk of harm to health.

When a health check-up is required

When all of the below are true:

  • workers are exposed to a hazard that can cause a specific disease
  • there is a valid test available for that disease
  • a risk assessment has been done and control measures put in place, but a level of risk still remains.

Health check-up results must include interpretation of the current and past results to identify any change in health. Where there’s a deterioration in health, employers must act to eliminate the risk completely or further control exposure to it.

For occupational lung disease, health check-ups include:

  • symptom questionnaires
  • breathing tests
  • chest x-rays.
Learn more about managing health-at-work

Explore our website to find out more about our occupational health management solution, which will help the construction industry to manage health-at-work.

1Source: Health and Safety Executive, Health and safety statistics for the construction sector in Great Britain, 2017