Deadly Dust: Protecting Yourself From Long-Term Lung Problems As A Construction Worker

It's common sense that a trade involving power saws and tons of concrete might be more dangerous than other trades, but did you know one of the most harmful things on a construction site is also one of the smallest? Simple dust, though tiny, can pack a big punch when it comes to health risks. If you're planning to start work on your next project soon, make sure you understand the risks and precautions for handling dust exposure before you get started.

Understand The Health Risks

It can be tempting to dismiss concerns about dust inhalation. After all, everyone breathes in a tiny bit of dust each day, right? Unfortunately, the long-term dust exposure that construction workers experience is considerably more risky for your health. Inhaled dust becomes embedded in your lungs, where it slowly accumulates and makes breathing more difficult.

Workers who breathe in more than the recommended daily maximum amount of dust put themselves at a higher risk for medical conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, adult-onset asthma, lung cancer, and silicosis, a condition wherein the lungs are scarred by prolonged silica exposure. Symptoms of these conditions often go unnoticed and untreated for years, making it difficult to address the problem when you finally realize something is wrong.

If you're thinking it will be easy to avoid inhaling dangerous levels of dust, consider that the maximum set by OSHA is only 15 milligrams per cubic meter. Most dusty construction jobs produce that much dust in a few moments, much less over the course of the day. Unless you want to put your health at risk, you have to take steps to protect yourself.

Keep The Dust Out Of The Air

Virtually every solid construction material is capable of producing dust when cut, sanded, ground, or drilled through. This dust, once airborne is incredibly difficult to control. Even outdoors or with ventilation inside, dust can still accumulate and form a cloud around workers. The best way to control airborne dust -- and save yourself time cleaning up -- is to stop it from ever taking flight in the first place.

The simplest way to do this is to choose alternative methods that reduce dust production. For example, instead of boring holes into drywall for fasteners to use, attach material to it with a nail gun. Plan your material purchases to reduce cutting and sanding, whenever possible. 

If you absolutely have to do a job you know will kick up dust, you can still keep the air clean using water. Wet sanding, cutting, and grinding will all throw up significantly less dust and make cleaning up easier. For applications where adding water isn't feasible, it's best to use tools which automatically vacuum up the dust as they run. To get the most out of this equipment, make sure the vacuum canister is emptied regularly throughout the day.

Choose A Stronger, Well-fitted Mask

Your mask is the last line of defense between your lungs and dust in the air, so it's important that you choose one with a strong filter. Smaller, weaker filters can get clogged more easily, making it difficult to breathe inside the mask. Unless you want to have to frequently leave the dusty area to change your filter out or clean your mask off, it's better to opt for a more powerful mask from the start.

The fit of your mask is also important. Dust particles are incredibly tiny, often even smaller than the width of a hair, so it's easy for them to get inside your mask if there's even a slight gap. When you choose a mask, always try several different brands and styles. Some will fit certain face shapes better than others. When in doubt, follow OSHA's rules for safely fitting a new mask.

Dust exposure can lead to painful and deadly health conditions over time, but this outcome is avoidable if you take care while working. Minimize the dust you're exposed to during construction, and decades from now your lungs will thank you.

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