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Dust and noise: more than just a nuisance

Exposure to construction dust and noise can be deadly, but symptoms often don’t materialize until decades later.

May 14, 2024  By Grant Cameron


Exposure to harmful levels of construction dust – known as the silent killer – is linked to thousands of construction worker deaths every year. Photo: Larry Dallaire / iStock

Dust and noise are perpetual perils of the job for anyone in industries such as roadbuilding and aggregates, which encompass working around elements like sand, rock, gravel, stone and concrete.

They aren’t just a nuisance, though. Constant exposure over the years can lead to a myriad of diseases and adverse health effects.

For example, construction dust like silica and wood can accumulate in a worker’s lungs, damage tissue and eventually kill. Breathing dust over a long period can cause life-changing problems and diseases like asthma, cancer, silicosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Exposure to harmful levels of construction dust – known as the silent killer – is linked to thousands of construction worker deaths every year. Even tasks that result in brief, multiple exposures to construction dust over a short period of time can cause occupational diseases and ill health.

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Excessive noise, on the other hand, can also take a toll over the years. By the time an individual realizes they have a problem, it can be too late as the damage is permanent and can’t be undone. Hearing loss caused by noise is one of the fastest-growing occupational diseases.

While the impact of traumatic injuries like falls or electrical contacts are usually immediate, occupational disease symptoms from dust and noise can show up decades later.

Silica exposure can cause lung damage
Mathew MacLeod, senior occupational health and safety specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), says the health effects from exposure to dust and silica can take 10 years or longer to develop but permanent lung damage may occur earlier.

Construction dusts like silica and wood can accumulate in a worker’s lungs, damage tissue and eventually kill. Photo: Sam Edwards / iStock

“If silica dust comes in contact with your eyes, it may cause slight irritation. Tearing, blinking and mild temporary pain may also occur,” he explains. “If inhaled over a long period of time, exposure to silica without proper protection can cause lung damage if the dust is breathed in. 

“Symptoms can include shortness of breath, chronic cough and weight loss. The main health concerns include silicosis and lung cancer. Silicosis is a fibrotic lung disease caused by breathing in respirable crystalline silica over a period of time, which causes permanent lung scarring.”

Silica dust is fine enough to penetrate the gas-exchange region of the lungs, which damages them, resulting in the formation of scar tissue.

MacLeod says silica is a basic component of sand and rock, and is in concrete, cement, gravel, mortar, brick, fill, stone and many other elements. 

“Working with these materials, and creating dust by crushing, dumping, hauling, grinding, cutting, dry sweeping, demolition and other activities can expose workers to airborne crystalline silica. Exposure can cause serious health effects when inhaled, including lung cancer and silicosis.”

Typically, says MacLeod, health effects are seen after long-term exposures to silica, but shorter-term exposures to high concentrations can also lead to negative health impacts.

Noise-induced hearing loss is costly
Noise and excessive clatter are equally concerning issues for workers in the roadbuilding and aggregates industries. 

The World Health Organization considers noise-induced hearing loss to be one of the costliest occupational diseases both to society and the economy. In Ontario, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board indicates that between 2009 and 2014, the annual costs for noise-induced hearing loss claims for all sectors exceeded $50 million a year. The costs of noise-induced hearing loss claims for the construction sector alone were close to $7 million per year.

Damage from exposure to excessive noise is often permanent
and is one of the fastest-growing occupational diseases.
Photo: mady70 / iStock

“Noise is not just a nuisance, it can also induce psychological stress,” explains Sasha Brown, an occupational audiologist at WorkSafeBC. “The constant barrage of loud sounds can be incredibly irritating, leading to heightened stress levels in individuals. Moreover, noise has the potential to distract individuals and mask important auditory signals, increasing the risk of accidents or failures to perceive critical warnings.”

Excessive noise can lead to permanent hearing loss and tinnitus. Additionally, it can induce stress and trigger physiological responses associated with stress, even at levels lower than those causing hearing impairment. 

“Our biological response to noise is adaptive for alerting us to potential
danger, and prolonged exposure to workplace noise causes physiological responses that are linked to cardiovascular conditions and hypertension.”

While a sudden loud explosion can cause immediate physical damage, resulting in permanent hearing loss, exposure to moderate noise levels over extended periods gradually leads to permanent hearing impairment, says Brown.

“The insidious nature of this progression means it may not be immediately noticeable but becomes evident when the damage reaches a point where communication is affected. Often, it is family members or close associates who first observe the signs, as individuals with noise-induced hearing loss may not fully grasp what they are missing.”

Over time, prolonged exposure to noise exhausts eventually kills the delicate hair cells in the inner ear. Once a hair cell dies, it cannot regenerate or be repaired, resulting in irreversible
hearing loss. 

Many who are affected by noise-induced hearing loss experience social isolation and withdraw from social interactions with family and friends because of increased fatigue due to the effort required for communication, says Brown.

“Furthermore, the increased effort to include those with hearing loss in conversations often has loved ones frustrated and inclined to exclude their family member or friend from discussions.

“Social isolation not only affects an individual’s personal life but also reduces their participation in economic activities such as dining out, and attending movies, concerts, and other events.”

Multiple dust control measures are needed
Mitigation measures can be taken to reduce both noise and dust, and therefore eliminate problems.

According to MacLeod, employers should develop a hazard control plan to protect workers that are potentially exposed to silica and put in controls based on the risk hazards in the
workplace.

“This plan should be developed in consultation with the health and safety committee or representative, workers, and other individuals as needed, such as health and safety specialists.

“Workers have a shared responsibility to keep themselves and the workplace safe as well,” says MacLeod, “and should use and wear all required personal protective equipment, such as respiratory protection, and follow all safe work procedures they have been trained and instructed on.”

By law, employers must make sure workers are not being exposed to levels of silica, or any other airborne substance that is above the occupational exposure limit for their jurisdiction. There may also be other specific requirements outlined in the occupational health and safety legislation that workplaces need to follow to protect workers from silica exposure and other hazards.

MacLeod recommends that employers implement multiple control measures to protect workers and begin using the most effective measures first. 

Although not often practical in roadbuilding, he says the most effective control is to eliminate the use of silica containing materials or using alternative materials that have lower concentrations of silica.

Engineering controls such as saturating material to supress dust generation are important, he says, as well as using local exhaust ventilation positioned on equipment or at the source of the dust.

Appropriate respiratory protection equipment needs to be worn and controls also need to be in place to change how the work is done to minimize worker exposures, says MacLeod.

Training programs vital to protect workers
For noise, Brown recommends proactive measures such as implementing proper hearing protection in noisy environments.

“While the ideal solution is to avoid exposure to hazardous noise levels altogether, this is not always feasible. In such cases, reducing the duration of exposure becomes crucial.”

Brown suggests PPE be used and regular annual hearing tests be conducted to detect any problems before they progress to significant loss. 

Engineering controls are also crucial for reducing noise levels and can encompass measures such as installing mufflers, while administrative controls may involve scheduling tasks to minimize duration of noise exposure or co-ordinating noisy activities during periods of reduced worker presence.

Brown says it is important to understand that hearing protection devices are not universally effective and must be tailored to individual needs. Earplugs, for example might not provide adequate protection if not worn properly. Therefore, employers should offer a variety of options and ensure workers receive proper training on how to wear hearing protection correctly.

Comprehensive training programs are also vital to educate workers about the detrimental effects of noise on their hearing and overall health, says Brown. 

“By fostering awareness and understanding among employees, companies can cultivate a culture of proactive hearing protection and ensure compliance with safety measures.”


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