Construction workers are 20 times more likely to die of exposure to a harmful airborne substance, than from a workplace accident.

Back to Articles & Resources View all Workplace Hazards content

To support the ever-growing human race, infrastructure needs to be built in order to house people, provide health and social services for communities, and to facilitate the development and expansion of businesses. In addition to this, older buildings are now at the point where it is no longer financially viable to repair them, or space is so limited that demolition is the best option. Because of these reasons, there are large-scale developments occurring around the globe. For those in the construction industry, this is great. These developments ensure greater job security, help to expand the different industries within construction, and sees the advancement of new technology to make completing these jobs easier, more efficient, and safer. However, the greater the volume of work being completed, the more people are being exposed to hazards and one that is especially dangerous when demolishing and building is dust.

To make buildings, a range of materials are used and selected for varying reasons, from price and availability to strength and pliability. Some of the most common materials that are used in the construction industry are steel, timber, plasterboard, concrete and brick. As a finished product, these are safe to be handled and do not pose any immediate health risks. However, when materials such as concrete and brick are cut, crushed and grinded, or buildings are demolished, then these can create dust which can become respirable. As these material's particulates enter the respiratory system, this is where a range of health effects can begin to affect operators' both short and long-term health. Sadly, construction workers are 20 times more likely to die of exposure to a harmful airborne substances, than from a workplace accident.

The effects of dust exposure

Construction dust is a general term that can be used to describe any number of dusts that are found on construction/demolition sites. This generally comprises of silica, timber and lower toxicity dusts. The ones that we should have the most concern of exposure to, are silica dusts.

Silica causes permanent damage to the lungs as it enters the respiratory system. As the lungs react to the silica particles, these develop fibrotic nodules and scarring around the trapped particles. When the nodules grow larger, this causes breathing to become difficult which can lead to occupational asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), silicosis and even lung cancer. Depending on the intensity and duration of exposure, this will impact how fast the silica will start to affect the person’s health.

These respiratory illnesses present the following symptoms:

  • Lung inflammation
  • Fluid buildup in the lungs
  • Fever
  • Sharp chest pains
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing


For those that suffer from silicosis, some very serious treatment options are required such as medication, dramatic lifestyle changes, breathing assistance and even lung transplants. For those that get diagnosed too late, silicosis can be fatal.

Reducing the dust exposure

A large proportion of demolition and construction is carried out in densely populated areas. Due to the close proximity of neighboring people, and the fact dust can easily become airborne, this increases the risk of exposure in these areas. Therefore, the dust needs to be contained as effectively as possible to ensure it does not reach people's respiratory systems.

Some common methods that are used to prevent the spread of demolition dust are surface wetting and airborne capture, and when concrete cutting, dust extraction systems are used. All these methods aim to reduce the spread of silica dust as it becomes airborne however they do not guarantee the prevention of dust spread as it can become dry and then airborne again or fail to be contained within the extraction zones. Because of this, other methods such as respirators should be used in conjunction to protect operator health and safety.

Respiratory protection is considered to be the last line of defense when it comes to controlling respiratory hazards. However, it is protection that can be relied on. Silica dust can range from 100 – 0.1 microns in size, therefore by selecting a respirator with a filter that removes particulates down to that size gives operators certainty that the air they are breathing is always safe.

As we continue to expand, more and more construction workers are going to suffer from the effects of silica exposure in the future. Implementing respiratory protection that is capable of performing in these conditions is one of the simplest and most effective ways to ensure that these workers get to enjoy a long and healthy life.

Works Cited

BossTek. (2013, October). DEMOLITION DUST: HAZARDS AND DUST CONTROL. Retrieved from BossTek: https://bosstek.com/demolition-dust-control-and-hazards/

Demolition Technologies Specialized Services. (n.d.). The Importance of PPE in Demolition. Retrieved from Demolition Technologies Specialized Services: http://www.dtspecializedservices.com/blog/posts/view/142/the-importance-of-ppe-in-demolition

Pro Choice Gear. (n.d.). PPE & OHS For Demolition Workers. Retrieved from Pro Choice Safety Gear: https://blog.prochoice.com.au/workplace-health-and-safety/ppe-ohs-for-demolition-workers/

Normohammadi et al. (2016, September). Risk Assessment of Exposure to Silica Dust in Building Demolition Sites. Retrieved from Science DIrect: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2093791115001183

Occupational Safety & Health. (2018, November 15). Specific Hazards and Control Measures for Demolition Work. Retrieved from HSEBlog: https://www.hseblog.com/specific-hazards-and-control-measures-for-demolition-work/

Site Safe. (2021). Dust. Retrieved from Site Safe: https://www.sitesafe.org.nz/guides--resources/practical-safety-advice/dust/

Stock, D. (2019, October 1). Scarring Exposures: Engineering controls capture silica dust particles. Retrieved from Industrial Safety & Hygiene News: https://www.ishn.com/articles/111599-scarring-exposures-engineering-controls-capture-silica-dust-particles