AIHA Raises Awareness About Health Hazards for Construction Workers

The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) has issued a guidance booklet, “Focus Four for Health: An Initiative to Address Four Major Construction Health Hazards,” to raise awareness about health hazards in the construction industry. The publication was developed by AIHA’s Construction Committee to highlight the impact that health hazards, not just safety hazards, have on workers and businesses and to provide practical steps that can be taken to control them.

The booklet addresses an important problem; construction workers are exposed to significant health hazards, but awareness about occupational health hazards lags behind that for workplace safety — resulting in less attention to construction employer environment, health and safety (EH&S) programs. As described in the introduction of the booklet, this is partly because illnesses and disorders from many types of health hazards develop slowly — making them harder for employers and employees to recognize compared with injuries. 

“Unfortunately, health hazards, such as noise or air contaminants, are common in construction. When health problems occur, they can cut careers short, cause pain and disability, and even cause premature death,” says Matt Gillen, team leader for the Focus Four for Health project. 

The guidance booklet spotlights these four common health hazards:

  • Manual material handing: Overexertion during lifting, pulling, pushing and carrying are the top causes of work-related musculoskeletal disorders — which account for about a third of all work-related injuries in construction and about half of all workers’ compensation costs.
  • Noise: High noise levels can cause hearing loss and tinnitus (chronic ringing in the ears). Recent findings also suggest links to sleep disturbance, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, depression and impairment of balance. In a 2011 study, almost three-quarters of construction workers were found to have been exposed to noise levels above the recommended exposure limit set by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
  • Air contaminants: Dusts, fumes, vapors and gases can cause a variety of short- and long-term health effects, ranging from asthma and irritation to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, nervous system problems, kidney damage or even cancer, depending on the material and extent of exposure. More than half of construction workers report being regularly exposed to vapors, gas, dust or fumes twice a week or more at work. The risk for developing an occupation-related disease after a working lifetime in construction is two to six times greater than for non-construction workers.
  • High temperatures: Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness. It can cause death or permanent disability if not treated quickly. Heat exhaustion, heat syncope, heat cramps and heat rash are other concerns. North American summers during the past decade have ranked among the hottest on record. An Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) study of 20 heat illness cases involving 13 deaths found that four occurred on the first day of the job.

The AIHA publication provides a health companion piece to go with the construction industry’s long-running Focus Four program that targets the top four fatal injury hazards. It employs similar and familiar safety strategies, such as pre-job planning and job safety analyses, to guide employers to successfully address the four health hazards.

“This new publication provides a one-stop, easy-to-use booklet to get employers started on the road to better on-the-job health. We want to stimulate new activities and partnerships among construction and safety and health professionals to better control health hazards. Ultimately, that will be good for the U.S. and Canadian construction workers and employers who build our homes, roads, bridges and buildings,” states Gillen. 

AIHA represents the professionals and experts dedicated to identifying, evaluating, controlling and preventing occupational health hazards. To download a copy of the guidance booklet, visit the AIHA website.

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