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According to a 2005 study produced by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the construction industry generally has a higher risk for developing cancers than any other industry, with 8,000 occupational cancer deaths that year alone. Although it’s impossible to eliminate every jobsite risk imaginable, proper safety precautions can help minimize exposure to carcinogenic agents.

Asbestos and its prevalence

Asbestos was used extensively throughout the United Kingdom, with nearly every building constructed before the year 2000 housing the mineral. Initially lauded for its durability and fire-resistance, it was eventually phased out and banned because of its carcinogenic effects.

Builders and tradespeople may find the mineral inside insulation, roofing, flooring, and cement. While these products are largely considered safe when undamaged, asbestos fragments could be released into the air if the materials are broken. When inhaled, these fragments become embedded in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, or heart, where they may cause cellular mutations over time.

This condition may result in mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused solely by asbestos exposure. The disease is almost always fatal and there is no cure. Most patients are given a life expectancy of 12-21 months upon diagnosis. Exposure can be diminished substantially by adhering to safety practices, including asbestos education and the utilisation of personal protective equipment (PPE) in hazard zones.

Silica dust in the industry

Silica is a natural mineral commonly found in rock, clay and sand, and it appears in construction in the form of brick, concrete and tiles. When these materials are implemented in building practices, fine silica dust can form while cutting, grinding, or sanding these materials, posing a respiratory hazard to workers.

Prolonged exposure to silica dust can cause serious health issues, including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and silicosis, and even lung cancer, according to some studies. COPD and silicosis are both characterised by labored breathing, chest pain, and chronic cough, and can become progressively more serious with time. Workers can minimise exposure to silica dust by implementing effective engineering controls and using a water sprayer to control dust.

Diesel engine issues

Many construction vehicles run on diesel engines, including trucks, excavators, and other heavy equipment. Due to the compression of air and the combustion process, these engines produce exhaust composed of a complex mixture, including liquid aerosols, gases, vapours, and soot. Among these components are many carcinogens like Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). Inhaling these fumes has been known to cause short-term health effects, including eye irritation and minor respiratory discomfort. However, there has been evidence linking long-term exposure to diesel engine exhaust emissions (DEEEs) to an increased incidence of lung cancer, especially in tobacco smokers and those exposed to other carcinogenic substances on the job.

The HSE notes that although diesel engineering and fuel technology have become more sophisticated and safer, the risk still lingers in older machines. Preventative measures to address DEEE include running generators or idling vehicles in well-ventilated areas, and practicing proactive engine maintenance for efficiency.

Safety first

Builders often work in an occupation filled with risk, but they can maintain their health for years to come by following proper safety protocol. Foremen and builders alike must be aware of these carcinogens, know where they are found, and follow best practices to avoid potential health risks. Universal safety practices such as using PPE and properly calibrated respirators, engineering controls, and appropriate ventilation can safeguard respiratory health and ensure employees finish their current job and many others still to come.

For more information, visit the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Centre website at

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