You wouldn't expect a big show of hands in response to our opening question. So explain why such conditions are willingly accepted in many construction workplaces, when even a basic level of 'house-keeping' could eliminate much of this nuisance and make life more bearable.
Mention the word COST and people take notice. Mention the words HEALTH and SAFETY and they go into raptures about some ridiculous regulation or ‘job’s worth’ and invariably miss the point. The COST of dust can be your HEALTH. We’ve all heard about the history of dust in the mining industry and how the effects only surface much later in life. There’s plenty of dust-related health risks in today’s construction environment with the same potential long-term consequences.
Power tools are now available for every conceivable construction task. They are highly efficient, produce consistent and accurate results and generally reduce physical effort. They also have the potential to create large amounts of dust. Some have provision for containing and extracting dust, with guards, shields and connection ports for ‘hoovers’ (dust extractors). Sadly most of these facilities are little used – the tradesman often considers the inconvenience of an attached hose not worth the effort and a dust pan and brush are easier to carry (and cheaper) than a ‘hoover’. If only they understood the true COST of dust to themselves and others.
There will be a variety of dust and waste products, depending upon the work being undertaken and materials present:
Silica is present in natural materials such as sand, stones and rocks including sandstone and granite. It is also found in many construction materials such as concrete, mortar, bricks and blocks. The silica is broken into very fine dust (also known as Respirable Crystalline Silica or RCS) during many common tasks such as cutting, drilling and grinding. It is often called silica dust.
Wood is widely used in construction and is found in two main forms; softwood and hardwood. Other wood-based products are also commonly used including MDF and chipboard.
There are a number of construction products that can produce mixed dusts of varying degrees of harm. The most common ones include gypsum, cement, limestone, marble and dolomite. These may contain small amounts of silica but these amounts are not significant enough to be the main risk.
This is the categorisation of dust or waste products, based on their hazard level. Dust Extraction systems are similarly classified, to reflect their suitability for each dust or waste product:
Carcinogenic substances such as asbestos.
Concrete and mortars (Silica) Man-made woods (MDF) and Natural woods (Oak, Beech).
General construction dust/waste and lower-toxicity materials.
Dust is a direct health hazard for the tradesman but can also affect many other people in the vicinity.
So what’s the answer? Of course there are many solutions and the most appropriate will depend upon the scale of the problem:
PPE in the form of a dust mask or powered respirator provides protection for the wearer. A dust mask can be a low cost, highly effective solution, for low intensity or infrequent exposure. They can however restrict the breathing process so may have detrimental effects, particularly where an activity is very physical. Powered respirators provide a constant source of clean air to the wearer and are highly recommended for more intense activities.
But remember, Personal Protection Equipment protects ONLY the wearer.
Dust Control and Dust Extraction facilities are present on many power tools or can be added. The underlying principle is that dust should be captured at source. So attaching a ‘hoover’ to a suitably shielded wood saw should mean the majority of dust, and waste products, will be captured at the cutting edge, before they can become dispersed into the atmosphere.
In principle, a ‘hoover’ or general purpose vacuum cleaner can be connected to a suitably equipped power tool and you’ll be able to grab the dust before it spews into the atmosphere. In practice, you might get this effect for the first four or five minutes with a general purpose ‘hoover’. Thereafter performance will drop off drastically:
By contrast, an industrial specification dust extractor is likely to be equipped with a variety of facilities to ensure it is fit for purpose.
In the final analysis, the most important and lasting benefit is the reduction in the health risks associated with the fine dust particles generated by various construction activities. And as it happens, it is arguably no more expensive to collect dust at source, than it is to deal with the widespread mess afterwards.