If you work in construction, you most likely worry about many on-the-job hazards, including injuries from efalls, hearing loss or being struck by equipment. Yet, the biggest threat by far may be to your lungs: research shows that construction workers are twice as likely to develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as the rest of the nation.
“It’s a very real and frightening health threat, as this disease can lead to disability and sometimes even death,” explains Benjamin Seides, MD, Director of Interventional Pulmonology at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Chicago.
Why construction workers are at a high risk for COPD
Almost a fifth of COPD among construction workers is due to on-the-job exposure to vapors, gases, dusts and fumes, according to a 2015 Duke University study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. When researchers looked at over 800 construction workers with COPD, they found that almost a third (32 percent) of the cases were due to workplace exposures among construction workers who had never smoked.
If you are demolishing old buildings, or doing remodeling, you can be exposed to asbestos used as insulation around pipes or in floor tiles, says Seides. Breathing in these fibers can damage and weaken your lungs, making you much more susceptible to eventually developing COPD, especially if you have other risk factors such as smoking.
Another culprit: silica, a mineral naturally found in soil, sand, granite, concrete and rock. “If a worker is cutting, chipping, grinding or drilling any of these materials, it creates dust that has microscopic silica particles,” adds Seides. This airborne silica dust can easily be breathed in, causing lung damage.
A study published in the European Respiratory Journal followed over 300,000 Swedish workers for more than 25 years and found that those exposed to these types of airborne toxins had a COPD death rate more than two and a half times than those who hadn’t been exposed to them on the job — and this held true even if the workers had never smoked. Not to mention the other chemicals construction workers are routinely exposed to, including paints, finishers and stripping agents: “all of these produce chemicals that can be toxic to 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 themselves are more likely to smoke, or be former smokers, notes Marc Rovner, MD, a pulmonologist at Indiana University. Roughly 40 percent are current smokers, according to a 2013 Harvard study. This in itself is a huge risk factor for COPD. “When your lungs are already damaged from smoking, any 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. (Obesity itself compresses your lungs and chest, which can cause lung damage, explains Rovner.)
How construction workers can stay safe and protected
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has very clear guidelines for construction companies on how to protect their employees. Here’s what you can do at work, and at home, to stay protected.
Practicing safe working habits. One way to dramatically reduce the amount of dangerous dust workers are exposed to is through a technique called wet cutting, where workers use a saw with a built-in system that applies water to the saw blade, says Rovner. The water limits the amount of harmful substances such as silica that gets into the air.
Wear a respirator mask, if needed. The OSHA recommends that workers use a P-, N- or R-95 respirator mask if their exposure to toxic dusts such as silica exceeds the recommended limit of 50 ug/m3 over an eight-hour day.
Clean carefully. OSHA also recommends all companies use cleaning methods that avoid exposing workers to silica unnecessarily. This usually means not sweeping, which increases dust in the air. Instead, other safer options include using a vacuum system, or washing floors, ideally when construction workers are not around.
Get yearly breathing tests. OSHA requires all construction companies to offer medical exams-including chest X-rays and lung function tests-every three years for workers who need to wear a respirator for 30 or more days per year. But if you’re frequently exposed to harmful dust particles, it’s a good idea to request a type of breathing test known as spirometry annually to stay on top of any potentially harmful changes to your lung function, advises Rovner. If this isn’t provided through work, speak to your doctor.
Don’t smoke. The most important thing you can do to preserve lung health when you’re not working is to not smoke. “It’s still the leading cause of COPD,” says Seides. It can also trigger a COPD flare-up if you already have the disease. Avoid second hand smoke, too. A 2016 study published 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 respiratory symptoms, and worse outcomes, than those who don’t. And while there are no conclusive studies linking vaping to COPD, it’s reasonable to think it carries the same risks, adds Seides.
Stay up to date on your vaccines. If you do have COPD, you’re more at risk of respiratory complications if you get 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 got one had almost a 40 percent lower risk of being hospitalized with flu-related complications. You should also get the pneumococcal vaccine (Pneumovax 23), as people with COPD are also at higher risk of developing pneumonia.