The Top Four Health Hazards in Construction

Construction Worker
September 12, 2019

Those who work in the construction industry are probably already familiar with OSHA’s “Focus Four” hazards. Also known as the “Fatal Four,” these hazards result in the highest number of fatalities and injuries on construction worksites.

They include the following:

  1. Falls
  2. Electrocution
  3. Caught-In or Caught-Between
  4. Struck-By Objects

And while these four hazards continue to present the greatest risk to employees, they primarily focus on safety hazards. There are other significant hazards in the construction industry that arguably deserve just as much attention.

For this reason, the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) has put together a list of the top four health hazards found on construction jobsites.

On June 18th, 2019, AIHA issued a press release to introduce their new guidance booklet: Focus Four for Health: An Initiative to Address Four Major Construction Health Hazards”.

As AIHA points out in the beginning of the booklet, occupational health hazards are often overshadowed by workplace safety hazards. This is partly due to the fact that illnesses and health issues often take years to develop and are not immediately identified or addressed.

The purpose of the AIHA booklet is to raise awareness on the significant impact that health hazards can have on workers. The booklet also offers practical advice for controlling them.

Matt Hillen, the team leader for the project, shares his insight on the matter: “Unfortunately, health hazards, such as noise or air contaminants, are common in construction. When health problems occur, they can cut careers short, cause pain and disability, and even cause premature death.”

So what are the four common health hazards that AIHA has identified?

  1. Manual Material Handling
  2. Noise
  3. Air Contaminants
  4. High Temperatures

Manual Material Handling refers to the high number of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) that result from overexertion and excessive lifting, pulling, and pushing that happens in construction.

AIHA estimates that about a third of all construction injuries can be attributed to MSDs, along with over half of all workers’ compensation claims.

To prevent these issues, AIHA created the “WHAT PACE” acronym to remind workers of the hazards associated with material handling tasks.

“Weight” : The heavier the object, the higher the risk of overexertion and the more likely it will result in MSDs.

“Handling Ease” : Loads with contents likely to move, loads that cannot be carried close to the body, or loads without handles all increase risks of MSDs.

“Awkward Postures” : Bending, kneeling, reaching, stooping, and twisting all increase the risk of MSDs.

“Time / Distance” : Loads that must be carried a greater distance or for a longer time present a higher risk.

“PACE” : The number of loads that must be moved per shift.

Administrative controls can also be used to prevent hazards associated with manual material handling. For example, employers can establish rules that nothing heavier than 50 pounds may be lifted by a single employee.

Noise is on the AIHA list because in a 2011 study, nearly 75% of construction workers were found to have been exposed to noise levels above the recommended limits set by OSHA and NIOSH.

High levels of noise can result in hearing loss, tinnitus (chronic ringing in the ears), sleep disturbance, and impairment of balance.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as earplugs and earmuffs are already commonly used in this industry. However, the AIHA booklet points out that additional efforts can be made to prevent health hazards from noise.

They suggest substituting less noisy tools or using sound-absorbing materials to limit the noise at the source. AIHA also thinks that employers also should make a better effort to provide well-rounded training. For example, more information about offsite exposures such as raceways, concerts, motorcycles, and shooting firearms.

Air Contaminants include dust, fumes, gases, and vapors. Each of these can cause a variety of short-term and long-term health effects. Some are more significant than others, and can even be fatal.

According to the press release, more than half of all construction workers report being regularly exposed to dust, fumes, gases, or vapors.

The risk of construction workers developing a work-related disease from these air contaminants is 2-6 times higher than for non-construction workers.

AIHA refers to the hierarchy of controls for preventing these types of health hazards. Whenever possible, employers should eliminate, substitute, or engineer out the hazards. PPE such as NIOSH-approved respirators can be used in conjunction with these efforts.

High Temperatures can lead to a number of heat-related illnesses. These include heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Not only can these illnesses be uncomfortable for employees, but they can also be life-threatening.

The recommendation for preventing heat-related illnesses is for employers to implement training, modified work schedules, and emergency response plans. Workers should also be sure to get plenty of water, rest, and access to shade.

Moving Forward

The Focus Four for Health project should help raise awareness for each of the above health hazards in the construction industry.

The AIHA publication provides a “one-stop, easy-to-use booklet to get employers started on the road to better on-the-job health,” says Gillen. “We want to stimulate new activities and partnerships among construction and safety and health professionals to better control health hazards.”


Gina Gould

Gina Gould