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Harmful Construction Dust

Working in the construction industry means tackling a variety of tasks on a daily basis. The job also entails wrangling one or more of a variety of materials that are composed of a number of substances. Becoming familiar with the materials and the tasks is important for workers. Why? Because many of the tasks and materials used in various construction related occupations can be harmful. In this article we will explore some of the subjects around harmful construction dust.

What Makes Construction Dust Harmful?

If all dust was the same, there would be no need for this information. However, dust varies in composition. Each kind of dust to which people are exposed contains its own matter. Thus, many jobs related to the construction industry carry the risk of exposure to harmful dust due to the materials used, the tasks performed, or both.

Some construction materials contain respirable crystalline silica. This substance has been shown to be harmful to people when it is breathed. The phrase "respirable crystalline silica" is full of meaning. Let's look at each word in the phrase to get a deeper understanding of the meaning. First, "respirable" means it is breathable. Second, "crystalline" describes the structure of the molecules in the substance it describes. Finally, "silica" the substance being described (SiO 2 Silicon dioxide). So, the phrase means: silicon dioxide in crystalline form that can be breathed into the lungs.

Respirable Crystalline Silica In Construction

As stated at the beginning of this article, not all dust is the same. Construction dust that contains respirable crystalline silica brings with it a variety of health risks. OSHA offers comprehensive information on the health impacts of respirable crystalline silica and the document entitled Frequently Asked Questions: Respirable Crystalline Silica Rule. To summarize, some of the health risks stemming from exposure include:

  • Silicosis
  • Lung Cancer
  • COPD
  • Kidney Disease

Because of the dangers that come from working with respirable crystalline silica in construction, it is good to be familiar with occupational tasks and materials that expose workers to harmful silica dust. Being knowledgeable of the harmful substances in construction dust and what tasks generate it is helpful in combating exposure.

Dusty Construction Materials

There are several materials from which harmful dust is generated. Some of them include the following:

Let's now briefly summarize how each of those materials can cause dust in construction.

Asphalt

Apshalt pavement milling machines remove broken down parts of the road's surface for recycling. AS the machines work, there is the potential for harmful dust to be generated.

Block

Dust that is harmful is found in blocks ( CMUs) that are just one form of precast concrete. The components of concrete contain crystalline silica.

Brick

Bricks used in construction contain respirable crystalline silica and when they are cut, drilled, or chiseled they produce dust that is potentially harmful. Additionally other materials used in bricklaying also contains silica.

Ceramic Tile

Tile cutters work regularly with tile saws and other tooling that are designed to remove material or to shape the tiles. Ceramics and porcelain contain respirable crystalline silica and produce harmful dust on the construction site.

Concrete

Driveways, garage floors, and sidewalks are just some of the ways in which concrete is used on the construction site. Anytime concrete is drilled, jackhammered, or polished using dry methods the dust that is generated should be considered harmful since concrete contains silica.

Granite

Constructing a kitchen that makes use of natural granite either for the countertop or some other surface(s) is another way that professionals may be exposed to harmful construction dust. This is because natural granite contains a large amount of quartz, which is a silica-containing substance.

Grout

Tiling, as mentioned above has the potential for generating dust not only by cutting the tiles. The grout also has the potential of exposing the workers to harmful dust on the construction site.

Mortar

We already mentioned that bricklayers contend with silica in the bricks. But the mortar also has the potential for harmful dust since it is composed of a mixture of substances, one of which is sand, a silica rich substance.

Pavers

If you weren't sure whether pavers are a potential generator of construction dust that is harmful, they are made of concrete. Since they are a concrete product, when pavers are cut, drilled, or shaped, the dust generated is potentially harmful.

Quartz

Even though quartz is an engineered stone that has a portion of its composition coming from resin materials, it also is made up largely of quartz mineral dust. So, when it is cut, dry polished, or drilled, its dust is harmful if breathed.

Quartzite

The natural stone quartzite is the product of sandstone that has been changed into a new natural stone via metamorphosis. Sandstone is by definition high in silica content. Therefore, quartzite contains large amounts of silica. Dust generated from working with quartzite is another form of harmful construction dust.

Sand

Many of the previously listed materials are actually harmful because they consist of this material. Sand is a substance that contains high levels of silica. Grout, concrete, mortar, blocks, pavers, and many other materials on the construction site contain sand.

Slate

Natural slate is used for a variety of architectural features. Surfaces such as floors, countertops, siding, and even roofing tiles are made from slate. It is though, a material that contains silica and therefore must be worked with carefully.

Construction Tasks That Generate Harmful Dust

Now that we have mentioned a few of the materials having the potential for being harmful construction dust generators, let's take a look at how the task being performed plays a role in how construction sites can be an environment with harmful dust. Here is a list of some of the tasks that, when performed on materials containing respirable crystalline silica produce harmful dust.

  • Chipping
  • Drilling
  • Cutting
  • Polishing
  • Grinding
  • Chiseling
  • Milling
  • Tuck Pointing
  • Scarifying
  • Clean Up

Chipping

handheld chipping tools and jackhammers are designed for breaking up very hard materials. Of course chipping the materials in the list above is what produces the harmful dust we have been talking about. The dust in turn, can have detrimental effects on workers and other people in the vicinity of where the work is being done.

Drilling

Drilling is a task that is performed on a variety of materials. Stone, concrete, wood, porcelain, and other hard surfaces require drilling. When drilling materials that have the potential for generating harmful dust, workers must be aware of what techniques to use to maintain a safe work environment.

Fabrication Work

Stone fabrication involves a number of the tasks mentioned above. Cutting, grinding, polishing, and chiseling are all tasks performed in conjunction with fabricating natural and engineered stone surfaces. Since this is the case, we will take few moments to cover some of those tasks now.

Cutting

It is virtually impossible to fabricate without cutting the material. Bridge saw blades, turbo blades, and rodding blades are all tools used to cut natural and engineered stone slabs.

Grinding

During the fabrication process there is sometimes a need to remove stock rapidly. It is at these times grinding tools are beneficial. Grinding allows for the shaping of voids in the countertop surface. For example, an under mount sink where the stone surface will show and needs to be finished nicely may need to be shaped or have a profiled edge.

Polishing

Another aspect of fabrication that can be a dust generator is polishing. When natural stones like granite, marble, quartzite, and engineered quartz are polished using dry polishing pads, dust that contains silica is generated. Many natural stone types contain silica to one one degree or another.

Chiseling

Countertops sometimes have finished edges with a rustic, unfinished look. Chiseled edges are one way to achieve that look. However, the chiseling process can produce dust. In fact, any time part of a natural stone is removed from the rest of the surface, dust is produced.

Milling

When a stone surface has inconsistencies in the thickness, it can produce a subpar finished product. Therefore, at times milling tools are used to make the thickness of the slab consistent. This requires the removal of material. The milling process generates dust and when the material being milled contains crystalline silica, is has the potential for harm.

Tuck Pointing

Bricks provide a durable surface for exterior walls, chimneys, and fireplaces on construction sites. But the mortar used to fill joints deteriorates even if the bricks themselves are still in good shape. As a result, tuck pointing may be the way to refresh the look of a bricked surface. However, the process will generate dust since the old mortar has to be removed. This is usually done by cutting the mortar away from the surface and replacing it with new. Cutting the old mortar away is the part of the process that generates dust.

Scarifying

Concrete scarifiers generate dust on construction sites too. Preparing surfaces using a scarifier allows for the preparation of the surface so that further treatments can be applied to the surface.

Clean Up

It is easy to overlook the fact that clean up generates dust. And as we have seen in this article there are a number of materials and tasks that produce harmful construction dust. When clean up begins, it stirs up the dust that was previously there; suspending it in the air. Even the simple act of sweeping up the floors stirs up the particulates that linger in the debris from the work on the construction site.

Dustless Construction Is Impossible

It should be easy to see now that dust-free construction is impossible to achieve completely. However, there are many techniques that can be used to reduce dust drastically. Additionally, there is PPE that can be worn by those in the area and doing the work. Dust collection equipment for tools and machines designed for collecting any harmful construction dust are often used for keeping the air as dust free as possible. It is good though, that using one or more of the dust management methods available allows for an environment that is relatively safe when it comes to dust that is generated on a construction site.

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