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Harmful substances in construction

Posted on 30/11/2018 at 10:29 AM by in Blog

Are you aware of the dangers that come with breathing in toxic fumes?

We’ve previously spoken about some of the more physical dangers of working in the construction industry, with the likes of electrical safety and manual handling procedures being a priority for workers. But now it is time to talk about something that is a bit harder to spot.

According to the HSE, there are around 12,000 deaths each year because of lung disease as a result of exposure to harmful substances in the workplace. With numbers like that, it’s crucial that people are made aware of the dangers that come with these substances.

In this fourth entry in our “Health & Safety In Construction” series, we’ve taken a look at some of the most common types of harmful substances you might find on-site and the risks that come with each one.

To view Part 1 of this series, “Working At Height In Construction”, click here. To view Part 2 of this series, “Manual Handling In Construction”, click here. To view Part 3 of this series, “Electrical Safety In Construction”, click here. To view Part 5 of this series, “Controlling Noise In Construction”, click here. To view Part 6 of this series, “Physical & Mental Health In Construction”, click here.


Asbestos is a substance that was used within most properties and buildings until the late 90s, acting as an insulator and protecting against corrosion.

However, asbestos is actually the biggest occupational disease risk to construction workers according to the HSE, being able to cause two different types of cancer: mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer.

Workers can be protected from asbestos by carrying out thorough risk assessments before any construction work is carried out, and any areas with asbestos have been identified.


Dust can be one of the most harmful substances you will find on a construction site, and is one of the easiest to be exposed to.

The types of dust found on construction sites will generally either be wood dust, lower toxicity dust or silica dust.

Wood dust is created when cutting or sanding through wood, causing damage to the lungs in the process. Lower toxicity dust is created when working with the likes of drywall or marble, and can affect both the lungs and the airways.

Silica dust is by far the most harmful, and is created when using sanding materials such as sandstone and concrete. Exposure to this kind of dust can lead to asthma or even lung cancer in some cases.

Small amounts of dust shouldn’t be too harmful, but overexposure to it could leave you with serious health issues. In order to prevent these risks, dust should be vacuumed as soon as possible and you should avoid working in small, enclosed spaces.


Mould is a substance that grows in damp and wet conditions, and continuous exposure to it can cause health issues such as allergies and respiratory problems.

It often occurs when moisture becomes trapped in buildings, and grows from there. Overexposure to mould over time can lead to life threatening problems, so working in close quarters to mould should be avoided wherever possible.

In order to protect yourself from the risks of mould, always wear the correct PPE (respirators, gloves, goggles) and be aware of the risks.


Solvents are another substance that can be found when working in the construction industry, being commonly found in the likes of paints, adhesives and cleaning fluids.

They can be a particularly nasty substance, effecting not only the lungs but also skin, and can cause some serious health issues. Exposing the skin to solvents can affects a person’s nerves and their brain function, leading to a multitude of potential problems such as blindness and cancer, and can even cause death if extreme cases.

As you can see, the amount of risk that comes with working with solvents is extremely high.

Some of the more common symptoms of being exposed to solvents include headaches, nausea, stomach pain, bleeding skin and irruption of the eyes and throat.

Our best advice is to be really careful when working around solvents, keeping them far away from any skin and work in well-ventilated spaces with fresh air where possible and wearing the correct respirator/face mask. Don’t forget to scrub yourself afterwards, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Carbon monoxide

Carbon Monoxide is a very harmful substance that is produced by gas appliances or engines when there is a lack of air for them to work, and can cause death in serious cases.

The gas can often occur when using equipment involving LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) and equipment that is powered by petrol, usually when working in tight, enclosed spaces. It can also occur when failing to correctly install new gas appliances, so it’s really important that workers are made aware of the correct procedures when handling this equipment.

In order to minimise the risk of carbon monoxide, make sure that there is plenty of ventilation around the workspace and you are using carbon monoxide detectors when using equipment that could produce it.


Lead is a substance that is commonly used as a specialist material, and can be found in the likes of paint or pipework in older buildings.

It’s important to be careful when stripping leaded paints from doors and windows, as exposure to lead has been known to causes health problems such as anaemia or kidney disease.

Where possible, it is advised to use different materials instead of lead or use lower temperatures when working so the leaded paint doesn’t get overheated. Also, as with most substances, the correct PPE needs to be worn at all times to get the best protection.


Harmful substances may not carry as many immediate risks as an electrical explosion or a fall from height, but will lead to a lot of serious health issues as we can clearly see.

When working with any kind of substance that could be dangerous, we recommend wearing a sufficient amount of PPE and making sure you are fully trained and prepared to work around them.

If in doubt, ask someone before taking action – it’s not worth the risk.

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