Construction Dust Safety

Construction dust is not just a mess; it can seriously damage your health. Some types can eventually even kill. Regular exposure to these dusts over a long time can therefore cause life-changing lung diseases.

Types of Construction Dust

Generally there are three main types  of dusts that you may find on a construction site:

Silica dust – Created when working on silica- containing materials like concrete, mortar and sandstone (also known as respirable crystalline silica or RCS);

Wood dust – Created when working on softwood, hardwood and wood-based products like MDF and plywood;

Lower toxicity dusts –Materials containing very little or no silica. The most common include gypsum (eg in plasterboard), limestone, marble and dolomite.

Health risks

Anyone who breathes in these dusts should know the damage they can do to the lungs and airways. The main dust-related diseases affecting construction workers are:

  • Lung cancer;
  • Silicosis;
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD);
  • Asthma.

Most disease take a long time to develop, and can build up over time in the lungs. When the problem is spotted, it’s too late unfortunately. The largest amount of silica someone should be breathing in a day on site is shown below.


The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) cover activities which may expose workers to construction dust.

There are three key pieces of info you need to know and carry out:

  • Assess (the risks)
  • Control (the risks)
  • Review (the controls)

1 Assess (the risks)

High dust levels are caused by one or more of the following:

Task – the more energy the work involves, the bigger the risk. High-energy tools like road saws and grinders produce a lot of dust in a very short time.

Work Area – the more enclosed a space, the more the dust will build up. However, do not assume that dust levels will be low when working outside with high-energy tools;

Time – the longer the work takes the more dust there will be;

Frequency – regularly doing the same work day after day increases the risks.


2 Control the dust.

Even if you stop some dust this way, you may do other work that could still produce high dust levels.In these cases the most important action is to stop the dust getting into the air. There are two main ways of doing this:

Using water to dampen down dust clouds. It needs to be used correctly. This means enough water supplied at the right levels for the whole time that the work is being done. Just wetting the material beforehand  wont work!

On-tool extraction removes dust as it is being produced. It is a type of local exhaust ventilation (LEV) system that fits directly onto the tool. This ‘system’ consists of several individual parts – the tool, capturing hood, extraction unit and tubing. Use an extraction unit to the correct specification (ie H (High) M (Medium) or L (Low) Class filter unit). Don’t just use a general commercial vacuum, they aren’t strong enough and could rupture. An industrial vacuum is recommend.


3 Review the Controls

  • Are all the steps and procedures you have in place working properly?
  • Simple things like checking if the machine or area is dusty.
  • Make sure your workers are using the correct tools, and RPE(respiratory protection) for the job. Simply looking way and holding your breath won’t do the job.
  • Carry out a thorough examination and test of any on-tool extraction system at least every 14 months.
  • Rotating those doing the task every 30minutes.
  • Use sheeting or temporary screens to enclose the work to stop dust escaping. Use sheeting or temporary screens if inside.
  • Workers should be clean shaven, a beard can stop a tight fit on a dust mask. See table of dust risks below.

Information extracted from the HSE and HSE NI websites.  They have a further range of in depth information about dust control.

Controls for common high-risk tasks

Controls for common high-risk tasks

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