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Construction dust is created when working with materials such as cutting timber studs, chasing or cutting into concrete, mixing plasterboard mortar or during demolition work. The dust usually contains silica (the most abundant mineral on earth found in large amounts in sand, sandstone, granite and quartz), non-silica (like gypsum, cement, limestone and marble) or wood (softwood, hardwood and wood-based products such as MDF and chipboard).
Planning and risk assessment
You should consider the risks of dust exposure before work starts to ensure appropriate actions are taken to limit the amount of dust generated during work tasks.
Anyone working on a construction site could be exposed to hazardous levels of silica dust, but those especially at risk include:
- Carpenters and plasterers (when installing fibre cement products)
- Demolition workers
- Floor finishers.
Hierarchy of Controls
Use the following Hierarchy of Controls to determine what level of control you need to manage the risks associated with breathing in dust:
- Elimination – work with the building designer to standardise room sizes and eliminate the need to cut materials to length on-site by having materials pre-cut to length before being delivered
- Substitution – substitute materials for ones that don’t contain silica and use fibre cement shears instead of circular saws or grinders
- Engineering – use on-tool dust collection and dust extraction when cutting materials with saws or other tools that produce dust and use water suppression when demolishing buildings
- Administration – perform cutting tasks outside in well-ventilated areas and rotate workers on cutting tasks to reduce exposure
- Personal protective equipment – use the right respiratory protective equipment (RPE) for the task and ensure it's fit-for-purpose. Ensure the RPE fits the individual correctly, taking into consideration that facial hair, long hair, jewellery and makeup can all prevent a tight seal. RPE should never be used as the only control measure for dust exposure. Train workers on the correct use and maintenance of RPE.
Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS)
While breathing in any quantity of dust is a health risk, silica dust is particularly harmful because the particles are small enough to be inhaled into the lungs. When inhaled into the lungs it can cause scarring and irreparable damage that over time leads to respiratory diseases such as silicosis, lung cancer and even renal failure.
Respirable crystalline silica (RCS) is a hazardous substance, which requires a risk assessment to identify whether it poses a significant risk in your workplace. There is no recognised safe level of exposure to RCS but you mustn't exceed the standard of 0.1mg/m3 in an eight-hour work day.
You must monitor the air and workers' health to determine levels of exposure and assess the risks for anyone performing ongoing work with silica containing products. Read more about respirable crystalline silica and the specific controls you must implement when working with or around RCS.