How to protect workers from toxic metals

By Joel Dandrea27 April 2022

The construction industry needs to consider interventions on all fronts connected to worker safety writes Joel Dandrea, SCRA chief executive officer.

Many professions are exposed to toxic metals at work, but construction workers have a more difficult job implementing safe practices when leaving the worksite because of the type of transient outdoor environments where they work, and the lack of training on these topics.

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As a result, construction workers may bring home more than a paycheck and sore muscles – instead, they could also be exposing their families to toxic metals.

The study was published online in the journal Environmental Research and highlights the need for improved measures to reduce take-home exposure among construction workers. Until now, the majority of research focusing on toxic contaminants unintentionally brought home from the workplace have concentrated on problems related to lead. Much less is known about take-home exposures to other harmful metals.

According to the “Harvard Take Home Study,” construction workers’ homes had higher levels of arsenic, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, nickel and tin when compared to janitorial and auto workers (also in the study).

And while lead is fairly well recognised, there are no clear guidelines to gauge the safety levels of those other metals, even as dangerous as they are.

Toxic metal exposure health effects

Exposure to metals such as arsenic occur near or in hazardous waste sites or areas with naturally high levels in soil, rocks and water. Other metals, like chromium, are used explicitly in construction – specifically, workers in welding, painting, cement and more can face occupational exposure.

Construction workers’ homes had high levels of arsenic, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, nickel and tin (Photo: Reuters Connect)

It should go without saying, but high exposure to arsenic can cause death, while lower exposure for longer periods of time can cause discoloration of the skin and corns or warts. Likewise, metals like chromium are carcinogens, with long-lasting health effects potentially rising from extended exposure.

But even as studies like this one reveal more about harmful chemicals and exposure to workers, not enough is known about prevention.

Given the lack of policies and trainings in place to stop this contamination in high-exposure workplaces like construction, it’s inevitable that these toxic metals will migrate to the homes, families and communities of exposed workers. Additionally, the realities of construction work make it harder to find and prevent issues like this.

Construction workers spend large amounts of time outside. They work on different projects, sometimes during the same day. As a result, it can be challenging to track and prevent the accidental spread of harmful dust.

Prevent worker exposure to toxic dust

Fortunately, simple practices – similar to the ones used to keep lead out of the home – can prevent workers from carrying home toxic dust. Within the research results, it was found that workers who have lockers to store their equipment and who don’t mix their home and work clothing or gear were less likely to bring home toxic metals.

In addition, thoroughly washing hands and showering with soap and water can prevent the spread, as can regularly cleaning the inside of one’s car.

Now, if contractors or jobsites don’t provide those opportunities, there are still things workers can do to reduce risk. Storing tools, boots or outerwear outside is one way.

And for what it’s worth, the pandemic has given many people a better understanding for how minute particles can spread. Being aware when those harmful metals are on site and regularly cleaning up, taking more precautions or wearing PPE when around those areas, or exposure to certain contaminants is high, can at least mitigate the risks.

Ultimately, given the complexity of these issues, the construction industry needs to consider interventions on all fronts connected to worker safety in this regard. And if policies, resources and basic education are slow in coming, then it’s on both employers and employees to know the dangers and manage their risks accordingly. Proactivity, in this case, could save lives.

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