Dust Control in Construction

Who wants to work in a dirty, dusty environment

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. 

Why are construction sites so dusty

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.

What is the most common dust on construction sites

There will be a variety of dust and waste products, depending upon the work being undertaken and materials present:

Silica Dust

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 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.

Mixed Dusts

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.

What are H, M and L 

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:

High Hazard Materials (H Classification)

Carcinogenic substances such as asbestos. 

Medium Hazard Materials (M Classification)

Concrete and mortars (Silica) Man-made woods (MDF) and Natural woods (Oak, Beech). 

Low Hazard Materials (L Classification)

General construction dust/waste and lower-toxicity materials. 

How dust impacts a construction site, the tools and the workers

Dust is a direct health hazard for the tradesman but can also affect many other people in the vicinity.

  • Dust shortens power tool life – power tools need to draw in air to stay cool. If that air is full of dust, it will coat the internal workings, cause heat build-up and accelerate wear on switches and moving parts.
  • Dust increases the risk of mistakes – if you can’t see what you’re doing, you’re more likely to miss your markings.
  • Dust and waste take time and money to collect, both during the job and on its completion.
  • Dust is a nuisance to other persons in the vicinity, be they tradesmen, occupants of the premises or passers-by. Where it results in complaints, there is the cost of disrupted schedules and perhaps the loss of future opportunities.
  • Dust can be an enduring nuisance for the client long after the workmen have gone. It settles largely invisible in unseen places, so if the tradesman is relying upon referrals for future work, they’re doing themselves no favours by leaving the client a reminder of their ‘dirty habits’.

How to prevent health risks due to dust exposure

So what’s the answer? Of course there are many solutions and the most appropriate will depend upon the scale of the problem:

Personal Protection Equipment (PPE)

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. 

On Tool Dust Control and Dust Extraction

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:

  • Wood, mortar and concrete dusts are very fine and dense, not at all like the coarse mixed materials normally collected by general purpose vacuums. So not only is the filtration medium in a general purpose product wholly inadequate for fine dust compounds (typically allowing the more dangerous fine particles to pass through) it also becomes clogged more quickly.

By contrast, an industrial specification dust extractor is likely to be equipped with a variety of facilities to ensure it is fit for purpose.

  • Some will be shaped to harness the inherent benefits of cyclonic air movement, spinning dust particles away from the filter, thereby extending the period of time before the filter needs cleaning.
  • A higher grade filter should ensure the exhausted air is free of fine dust particles. As it is generally counter-productive to remove the filter for cleaning (this risks releasing undesirable materials into the atmosphere) some form of integral filter cleaning mechanism is desirable.
  • It is also highly desirable for the waste to be collected in a system that ensures it is not subsequently released into the atmosphere – most frequently, an internal bagging system is used. Failing this, a procedure should be adopted to ensure that all the good work is not undone by tipping the waste into an open skip!

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.

To discuss or comment upon anything raised in this article, telephone Sunrise Tools on 01794 830 841 or email enquiries@sunrisetools.co.uk 

Posted in: Sunrise Updates