With recent alerts about air pollution in the UK, and with the latest Purchasing Managers Index for the construction sector highlighting an optimistic outlook for the year ahead, it’s a great time to consider the potential implications of construction dust – both on the local environment and employees.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that over 500 construction workers die every year as a result of exposure to silica dust here in the UK. The level of dust someone should be breathing in on a day-to-day basis is tiny but the risk to human health is potentially huge. Dust-related illnesses can include silicosis, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and even lung cancer – many of which can develop gradually, meaning that prevention must be a priority.

For construction workers, the priority lies with the employer, but it is also important to manage personal safety. When any new task or role is set, the priority should be a risk assessment, with factors such as space, frequency of the task and also job itself as key considerations. With an understanding of the level of work required, it is then possible to control the risks.

Control comes in two key forms:

  • Reduce the dust and then control it
  • Respiratory protection for workers.

On the first point, HSE advises choosing building materials carefully to reduce the level of cutting and preparation required, as well as being aware of using the correct tools. Other methods such as utilising water to dampen down dust clouds and on-tool extraction can then be deployed to stop getting dust into the air.

Of greater importance for the construction worker is respiratory protection, and there are a number of key things to look for, from the basic principles like choosing the right mask for the job and the correct filters, to ensuring that you have had training in order to use the equipment properly. All too often, construction workers think respiratory masks are simply ‘fit and forget’, yet there are many things to consider, to ensure they are suitable for the job and are used and maintained correctly.

To help construction workers on site and to ensure daily safety, there are a number of products to consider and it’s all too easy to pick a well-known solution. To guarantee the best fit and most suitable design, consider the face-fit process.

  1. Don the mask – place the straps and harness over your head and firmly pull the straps for a comfortable fit
  2. Where the mask features a face piece, the seal should meet the skin and therefore users should be clean-shaven during the fit test and in the product’s future use
  3. A construction worker should not require the help of the tester to fit the device.

Once fitted, there are a number of checks that can be made to reassure personnel that the device works as it should. ‘Press to Check’ from respiratory supplier JSP does just that, with the ability to press the front and backs of the filter cover to stop air from entering the filters. If the mask is fitted correctly, no air should come through and the process can be repeated if needs be.

Where health and safety is concerned, workers demand the simplest and most effective solution and there should never be any complacency when it comes to maintaining it.

Dominic Proctor is general manager at Parker Merchanting.