The Biggest Health Risks In Construction And How To Minimize Them
Working in construction is one of the most physically demanding jobs you can find. For this reason, being involved in this industry over an extended period of time can come with some short and long-term health risks. Health and safety in construction needs to be prioritized on every job site. Whether you're a carpenter, roofer, welder, equipment operator, or occupy any other position, it's almost impossible to avoid all the potential threats to your well-being.
Although there will always be risks, each can be reduced by being aware of them and preparing yourself accordingly. Below we'll highlight some of the health effects that are most common in construction and how to minimize them to protect your workers and yourself.
A commonly experienced but often overlooked health problem among construction workers is auditory issues and hearing. Due to the operation of heavy machinery, concrete saws, jackhammers, and other equipment, workers are constantly exposed to loud noises. A CDC study reports that 51% of all workers in construction have been exposed to hazardous noise and 25% of these workers have a material hearing impairment, which constitutes hearing loss that impacts day-to-day activities.
Although it is available, many equipment operators choose not to use protective equipment for their hearing because it doesn't seem necessary. This issue is so common that the CDC reports that 52% of noise-exposed workers are not wearing hearing protection. Most workers also don't realize the extent of their noise exposure on a daily basis, often believing if they aren't operating the equipment they'll be at a safe enough distance for it to have no impact.
This problem has a simple solution: be mindful of your noise exposure and wear hearing protection any time you are exposed to continuous, loud noises on the job site. Taking these steps is an easy way to implement construction workplace safety. If your supervisor doesn't provide PPE for you, you can request it, or you can even go and buy your own relatively cheap earplugs that will still get the job done.
Lung Problems and Cancer Risk
Another long-term health risk for construction workers comes from harmful vapors, gasses, dust, and fumes on the job site. Exposure to these elements can lead to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing problems. This also leads to the potential to develop further lung problems and even cancer if not properly mitigated.
A well-known airborne risk is asbestos, which can often be found in flooring, ceilings, and insulation. Asbestos is the primary cause of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, but in combination with other forms of pollution and lifestyle choices (like smoking, which is prevalent in the construction industry) can also cause lung cancer. In the United States, the people most likely to be exposed to asbestos are those in construction, so this is a threat you need to be aware of.
A large part of the solution to this issue, and a great construction site safety tip, is to ensure regular inspections of the job site for the presence of any hazardous airborne materials. There are also steps that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of harmful gasses being present on site, one of which is to recognize which activities are likely to produce these chemicals so workers can protect themselves with respirators.
Whether it's asbestos, silica dust, or any other harmful gas or fume, it can cause long-term damage to your lungs and seriously impact your well-being. Be cautious and take preventative measures.
Lower back pain is one of the predominant causes of lost workdays and disability among construction workers. This is developed through repeated tasks that require excessive force (lifting, pushing, pulling, etc) or spending prolonged periods of time in awkward positions, such as tying rebar. This kind of problem can cause a range of pain, from a dull, constant ache to a sharp sensation that radiates down into your lower body.
Although not always serious and usually not debilitating, back pain can affect your day-to-day activities for the rest of your life if you continue to put yourself in compromising situations. Follow the "lift with your legs, not your back" cliche putting your legs in position to do most of the work since they possess some of the strongest muscles in your body.
Back pain is perhaps the most common risk associated with general health and safety in construction, so be mindful of situations that put you in awkward positions or overload your back. Even if you already have back pain, there are ways to treat or at least manage the problem.
When back pain starts to occur, rest, ice, and taking some ibuprofen or aspirin are some of the options that can help someone recover quickly. Back pain that continues for over three months is considered chronic and chiropractic care or massage therapy are a couple of approaches that can help manage the issue. Don't let this problem impact the rest of your life, take these steps to help treat your back pain.
Blood Pressure and Circulatory Problems
The final types of physical issues common in construction workers we'll discuss are blood pressure and circulatory problems. The physically demanding nature of the industry when combined with hereditary and/or lifestyle factors is capable of causing high blood pressure and hypertension. These conditions, in turn, lead to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Workers should pay close attention to their cardiovascular wellness and identify if their family has a history of heart problems. Reducing this risk may require adjusting your outside-of-work lifestyle to ensure the activities you engage in on a daily basis don't cause negative effects when combined with the difficulties of the job.
Another potential circulatory issue is varicose veins, which can cause aching, burning, cramping, or discomfort in the legs. This is sometimes caused by extended periods of standing but can be prevented by choosing the right footwear, exercising, and avoiding these long stretches of standing on site (take a short break to sit, we know you want to and now there's an excuse).
Construction has many physical short and long-term health risks but mental well-being may be the most significant danger to construction workers. Suicide rates for people in this industry in the United States are 3x higher than the national average and one in five construction workers suffer from mental illness. Men are already less likely to talk about their mental health, and in a culture like this one that is heavily competitive and made up of almost entirely men, that problem is compounded.
With possible layoffs due to seasonal work, having to work long hours, and physical exhaustion impacting life outside of work, it makes sense that stress, anxiety, and depression could affect workers in the construction industry. This is especially true for those who are on-site away from home for weeks at a time which can cause feelings of loneliness and isolation. Mental well-being is important for everyone, and also significantly influences the productivity of your business.
One way to improve the mental health of both yourself and your employees is by promoting a strong work-life balance. Not requiring constant overtime, long hours, or working on weekends allows your employees to enjoy their time outside of work. This also helps them to come in the next day recharged and be more productive than they would be if they were burnt out.
Employees should also be educated on their rights and protections associated with mental health, as both the US and Canada have laws protecting those in the workplace with disabilities which include mental illness.
Lastly, provide support to your employees and coworkers. Including counseling services as a part of an employee benefits package is a great way to make this help more easily accessible. Being open with your coworkers about your own mental health also allows them to support you and encourages them to open up to you in return.
There are going to be risks to your health regardless of your profession, but they are more common in construction. When you take steps towards improving safety on the job site, every threat you face in this industry can be minimized.
The most important thing you can take from this article today is to be aware of the potential hazards around you. Prioritize construction safety by keeping in mind the things in your working environment that could harm you and how you can prioritize your long-term health over short-term convenience. Read more tips on how to maintain your well-being in construction.