The vast majority of construction industry workers are exposed to potentially cancer-causing agents, otherwise known as carcinogens, on a regular basis, according to the May 2016 Australian Work Exposures Study: Construction Industry Report.
Based on a sample of 459 workers, the report estimated that 96% had a probable exposure to at least one carcinogen, while 53% had a probable exposure to four or more carcinogens.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) and the hierarchy of control were identified as playing an important role in minimising the risk of exposure.
For example, respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is an appropriate control method for the inhalation of airborne contaminants, a common method of carcinogenic exposure in the construction industry.
However, the study found that 46% of carpenters reported not using any RPE despite being the occupation with the highest probable exposure to carcinogenic wood dust.
Working with wood, mixing concrete or cement, painting preparation, soldering and welding, and refuelling vehicles were the main workplace tasks linked with a high likelihood of exposure, while working outdoors (UV radiation), working near someone smoking and working near operating diesel-powered vehicles were the work circumstances which came with a higher likelihood of carcinogenic exposure.
Solar UV radiation, environmental tobacco smoke, crystalline silica, diesel engine exhaust and wood dust were identified as the carcinogens which construction workers were most likely to be exposed to.
Cancers which have been linked to the construction industry include lung cancer, mesothelioma, sinonasal cancer and non-melanoma skin cancer.
While most workers exposed to a carcinogen will not develop cancer, it does increase the risk.
The report found there is a lack of clear information tailored to the construction industry on the exposure and control of carcinogens as well as their health effects.
Where exposure cannot be eliminated, the hierarchy of control should be followed with substitution, isolation and engineering controls preferred over administrative approaches and PPE due to their greater effectiveness as control measures.
Nevertheless, PPE remains a critical last line of defence where the other controls are insufficient.
The table below lists preventative measures identified in the study which can minimise the exposure to common carcinogens.
This is an adaptation of an article originally published at ProChoice Safety Gear.