Dust and fumes (Respiratory hazards)

Respiratory hazards are substances in the air (such as construction dust) that can be inhaled and can lead to a range of illnesses and diseases. Damage is mainly caused to the lungs and airways, and includes lung cancer and silicosis. However, some respiratory hazards can also result in diseases in other parts of the body, such as the kidneys and liver.

The Health and Safety Executive estimates that around 450 people every year are dying as a result of past exposure to silica dust, which causes lung cancer. Many workers are exposed to silica during tasks such as cutting paving slabs, blocks or kerbs.

As well as deaths from respiratory hazards, many more workers suffer chronic, debilitating health conditions (such as occupational asthma) from breathing in hazardous substances on site. Many people are forced to leave the industry because of work-related ill health.

The effects of exposure to most respiratory hazards are not always immediate. You may go home from work feeling more or less the same each day, not realising that you have been exposed to a substance that may cause problems in the future.

If you are repeatedly exposed to small doses of dust, fumes and vapours they may start to damage your body. The effects of these small doses build up over time. It can take months or even years before symptoms of exposure start to show and become a problem and by then irreversible damage to your health may have occurred.

At any one time there are far more people off work through occupational ill health than because of work-related accidents.

Exposure to everyday hazards, including things like wood dusts, flux, welding fumes, dusts from slab cutting, asbestos fibres and many more common workplace materials, can cause ill health.

Some dusts and fumes, known as respiratory sensitisers, can cause workers to develop an allergic reaction (such as asthma) in the airways if inhaled. When the dust or fume (allergen) is breathed in, it triggers the reaction, which can cause wheezing, coughing and breathlessness (asthma attack).

Breathing in hazardous airborne substances can also cause serious health problems, such as bronchitis and many other respiratory diseases, including various types of cancer.

Exposure to solvent vapours can cause acute (immediate) effects as well as chronic (long-term) illness. This means an affected person can suffer headaches, dizziness, unconsciousness and even death if they are exposed to high concentrations of airborne hazardous substances, particularly if exposed in a restricted, poorly ventilated or confined space.

Workers in the construction industry are exposed to many materials and products, some of which are particular respiratory hazards (such as asbestos, cement, stone, silica, lead, MDF, plastics, epoxies and solvents).