When working in the construction industry, you are most likely worried about many workplace hazards, including injuries from falls, hearing loss, and equipment bumps. By far the biggest threat could be your lungs: Research shows that construction workers are twice as likely to get chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as the rest of the country.
“It is a very real and scary health threat, as this disease can lead to disabilities and sometimes even death,” explains Dr. Benjamin Seides, Director of Interventional Pulmonology at Central DuPage Hospital, Northwestern Medicine, Chicago.
Why construction workers are at high risk of COPD
Almost a fifth of construction workers’ COPD is due to exposure to vapors, gases, dusts, and vapors at work, according to a 2015 Duke University study American Journal of Industrial Medicine. When researchers examined over 800 construction workers with COPD, they found that almost a third (32 percent) of the cases were due to exposure to construction workers who had never smoked.
When you demolish or remodel old buildings, you can be exposed to asbestos, which is used as insulation around pipes or floor tiles, says Seides. Inhaling these fibers can damage and weaken your lungs, making you much more susceptible to developing COPD, especially if you have other risk factors such as smoking.
Another culprit: silica, a mineral that occurs naturally in soil, sand, granite, concrete and rock. “When a worker cuts, crushes, grinds or drills one of these materials, dust is created with microscopic silica particles,” adds Seides. This airborne quartz dust can be inhaled easily and cause lung damage.
A study published in the European Respiratory Journal tracked over 300,000 Swedish workers for more than 25 years and found that those who were exposed to these types of toxins in the air had a COPD death rate more than two and a half times those who were not exposed to them at work – and this continued true even if the workers had never smoked. Not to mention the other chemicals that construction workers are routinely exposed to, including paints, refiners, and paint strippers: “All of these chemicals produce chemicals that can be toxic to the lungs,” says Seides.
Welding also produces smoke that contains metals such as aluminum, arsenic or lead, as well as gases such as carbon monoxide or hydrogen fluoride. All of these can be harmful to your lungs.
In addition, construction workers tend to smoke themselves or are former smokers, Dr. Marc Rovner, pulmonologist at Indiana University. According to a Harvard study from 2013, around 40 percent are currently smokers. In itself, this is a major risk factor for COPD. “If your lungs are already damaged by smoking, further damage from dust or other occupational hazards can dramatically worsen the condition,” he explains.
Almost half of all construction workers are also overweight or obese, which is another COPD risk factor. (Overweight itself compresses your lungs and chest, which can lead to lung damage, explains Rovner.)
How construction workers can stay safe and protected
The OSHA has very clear guidelines for construction companies to protect their employees. Here’s what you can do at work and at home to stay protected.
Practice safe work habits. One way to drastically reduce the amount of hazardous dust workers are exposed to is a technique called wet cutting, in which workers use a saw with a built-in system that applies water to the saw blade, says Rovner. The water limits the amount of pollutants such as silica that get into the air.
Wear a respirator if necessary. OSHA recommends that workers use a P, N, or R-95 respirator if their exposure to toxic dusts such as silica exceeds the recommended limit of 50 µg / m3 on an eight-hour day.
Clean carefully. OSHA also recommends that all companies use cleaning methods that prevent workers from being exposed to silica unnecessarily. This usually means not sweeping, which increases the dust in the air. Other safer options include using a vacuum system or washing floors, ideally when construction workers are not around.
Get annual breath tests. According to OSHA, all construction companies have to offer medical examinations every three years – including chest X-rays and lung function tests – for workers who have to wear a respirator for 30 or more days a year. However, if you are often exposed to harmful dust particles, it is a good idea to request a breath test called spirometry annually to keep up to date with potentially harmful changes in your lung function, Rovner advises. If this is not achieved through work, talk to your doctor.
Do not smoke. The most important thing you can do to maintain lung health when you are not working is not to smoke. “It is still the leading cause of COPD,” says Seides. It can also cause a flare-up of COPD if you already have the disease. Also avoid second-hand smoke. A study published in 2016 in the British Medical Journal found that both men and women with COPD who live with a smoker or are otherwise exposed to second-hand smoke have more difficulty breathing and worse results than those who do not. And although there are no final studies linking vaping to COPD, it’s reasonable to believe that it carries the same risks, adds Seides.
Stay up to date on your vaccines. If you have COPD, there is a higher risk of respiratory problems if you have a cold or flu. Protect yourself with an annual flu shot. A 2019 study published in the Medical Journal chest found that people with COPD who had one were almost 40 percent less likely to be hospitalized with flu-related complications. You should also get the pneumococcal vaccine (Pneumovax 23) because people with COPD are also at higher risk of developing pneumonia.