Did you know June is National Safety Month? Recognized by the National Safety Council, June is the perfect time to evaluate, refine, and advocate for safer practices in the workplace and at home.

It’s crucial to bring those conversations about safety to the construction industry, as construction workers are constantly exposed to and surrounded by toxic materials, vapors, gases, and other air pollutants. Construction, demolition, and renovation can release particles or vapors into the air that workers inhale. This puts construction workers at a higher risk for respiratory illnesses and lung cancers than the average person.

Understand the Threats

It’s crucial to identify the toxic things your workers could potentially breathe in on the job before starting a project. This way you can prepare to handle and dispose of the materials safely, as well as have the proper PPE on hand. In fact, OSHA requires employers to assess the threats on the job site before choosing what type of respirator to provide to workers. Two threats widely discussed in the construction industry are silica and asbestos.

Crystalline silica is presently found all over construction sites. Workers are exposed to this mineral through high-energy operations with sand, including cement, ceramic, rock, or brick, as well as other materials like glass and stone. While it’s not a hazard when contained, it becomes a concern when tiny particles of it are released into the air and inhaled. When inhaled, this dust could cause a respiratory disease called silicosis or a host of other lung problems and cancers.

Asbestos is a type of carcinogen that was used in construction until the 1980s. It’s found in insulation, tiling, cement, drywall, paint, and more. Similar to silica, inhaling asbestos particles can cause microscopic tears in the lungs leading to many respiratory diseases or mesothelioma (a rare type of cancer).

Do You Know the OSHA Regulations?

OSHA regulates safety in the construction industry and has advisements for many toxic and hazardous substances, as well as guidance on respiratory protection in the workplace. They also have best practices for handling toxic materials, so it’s important to read them after you do the site’s threat assessment, so you know what you’ll need.

Employers that require their employees to wear respirators must have a respiratory protection program. Further, all employees who wear respirators for work must be properly trained in how to wear, get a proper fit, dispose of, and replace them safely. They must also pass a medical examination.

Your Legal Responsibilities as an Employer

As mentioned, any company that requires the use of respirators is legally required to have a respiratory protection program. This includes directives on a variety of things:

  • Properly wearing respiratory protection
  • Respirator maintenance
  • Training expectations
  • Handling unexpected dangers

You should also have safety procedures that focus on the safe handling of toxic materials. For example, when to keep hazardous materials wet to combat dust clouds, how many people may be in the workspace, and the duration people can stay in situations before they must leave to get fresh air and rest.

Providing Proper PPE

When you’re on a job site where there are respiratory hazards present, be sure to provide the right PPE for your employees. Removable coveralls, gloves, and other forms of PPE help to protect your workers’ lungs even though they don’t directly impact breathing. They cover their bodies and they can remove them at the end of the day so as not to carry shards of materials like asbestos or silica home for them or their loved ones to breathe in.

There are two primary types of respirators used in construction: supplied-air respirators and air-purifying respirators.

Supplied air respirators provide clean air to workers from an external air compressor or cylinder. These are used in dangerous conditions, such as when there is minimal or no oxygen at the job site. However, these need more training than the average respirator to keep workers safe.

Air-purifying respirators are the more recognized style and are often referred to as half-face respirators. They have removable filters which clean the existing air coming in. These filters come with different ratings depending on the materials they will be exposed to. When dealing with asbestos and silica, it’s important to use the topmost rated 100 filters.

Further, it’s crucial to have spare respirators and filters on hand at the job site so your employees always have the option to switch out a clogged, torn, or one that doesn’t fit quite right. Workers are more likely to abide by respirator regulations when they are comfortable with the fit and feel of the mask.

In honor of National Safety Month, take some time to reevaluate your respiratory health measures and ensure they’re being adhered to. Perhaps it is even time to provide an update for your workers offering more protection and empowering them to prioritize their safety because you do.

CURT’s Safety & Wellness Committee is a great group to join if your business is focused on safety leadership. If you’re interested in sharing safety-related best practices, continuous learning, and addressing problem areas, reach out to construction-users@curt.org to learn more.

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