Construction Workers Wheezing From COPD

COPD means lung problems, and not just for smokers. Construction workers breathing vapors, gases, dusts and fumes are at risk. Dr. John Dement has the fix.

Dr. Dement, Duke University

Dr. Dement, of Duke University, teamed with The Center For Construction Research And Training (CPWR) for a study on nearly 20,000 construction workers. Results reveal an 18 percent jump in lung problems due to airborne particulates.

In this podcast, Dr. Dement tells host Dan Clark about the study, and how companies should use engineering controls to reduce vapors, gases, dusts and fumes (VGDF). Respirators are important, but are a last defense.


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Dan Clark: A new study says construction workers can have lung damage from all kinds of on-site vapors, gases, dusts and fumes. Welding is a known risk, but…

Dr. John Dement: Cement dust is a little different story.

Dan: These lung issues are called COPD. We’ll hear from the head of new research on it in a moment.

Hello, I’m Dan Clark of The Safety Brief, tackling health and safety hazards in today’s demanding industrial and construction worksites, compliments of Creative Safety Supply.

Go to and save 10 percent with coupon code BIG10.

Healthy lungs are elastic. Inhaling, they expand like a balloon. They shrink back down on exhale. People with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease—COPD—have air sacs in their lungs that don’t snap back. Emphysema, chronic bronchitis and refractory asthma are forms of COPD.

Smoking is a big cause of COPD, but construction workers are coughing and wheezing with it due to on-site particulates.

Dr. Dement: Welding is a fairly well known risk factor for COPD.

Dan: That’s Dr. John Dement of Duke University.

Dr. Dement: Cement dust is a little different story.

Dan: John led a team tracking nearly 20,000 construction workers and found 18 percent of COPD risk can be chalked up to on-the-job exposures. Percentages were even higher with certain materials such as cement dust.

Dr. Dement: Exposures among those who, essentially, worked with finished cement, such as in construction through cutting and drilling and that type of activity, really hasn’t been shown much in the past. So, this was a, sort of, a new finding.

Dan: COPD risk increased when workers were exposed to vapors, gases dusts and fumes—VGDF—such as asbestos, silica, engine exhaust and even wood dust.

So, should construction regulations be changed with N95 respirators required for everyone?

Dr. Dement: No, I don’t think that’s the way that it should go. I think that the way construction needs to go is through engineering control and design, with respirators being, really, being the last line of protection.

Dan: So, more engineering controls.

Dr. Dement: For example, when you do cutting and grinding of cement. The best way to do that is with wetting as well as local exhaust ventilation.

Dan: Companies used to think that getting employees into “stop smoking” programs would be the COPD fix. Now, not so much.

Dr. Dement: Well we certainly don’t want to diminish the importance of stopping smoking, because that is a cause of about 80 percent of COPD cases in most populations.

Dan: Mm-hm.

Dr. Dement: However, what we’re finding is that a sizable proportion of cases are attributable to occupational exposures. In our study, it ranged from about 18 percent for everybody, to over 30 percent on individuals who had not been a smoker in their lives.

Dan: Wow.

Dr. Dement: So, it’s a combination. Stop smoking, prevent exposure.

Dan: Legislation is slow, companies break rules. If a company doesn’t control dust, should a worker bring their own respirator?

Dr. Dement: Well, if they bring their own, it’s important that they make sure that it’s one that complies with the requirements of the job. Not all respirators are created equally and the respirator needs to fit and perform perfectly.

Dan: Doctor, give us your final elevator pitch to construction company owners, managers and workers.

Dr. Dement: Dust in construction is not just a nuisance. It causes respiratory conditions like COPD. So, avoiding exposures to vapors, gases, dust and fumes is important.

Dan: Work practices are important. Not doing things that create dust. Using wetting methods cutting. Using vacuum systems that take the dust away, that is important.

That’s Dr. John Dement of Duke University on the new study by Duke and The Center For Construction Research And Training, CPWR. A link to their report is in the transcript of this podcast.

That’s all for this episode, Construction Workers Wheezing From COPD. Come back for more ways to stay safety compliant in today’s ever-changing landscape of safety requirements. I’m Dan Clark of The Safety Brief, a service of Creative Safety Supply. Save 10 percent off your entire order at with coupon code BIG10.


The complete document, “A Case-Control Study Of Airways Obstruction Among Construction Workers” is at this link.

General information about COPD is at this link.

lungs image © ℗ 2015 Pixabay OpenClipartVectors; cutting concrete © ℗ 2015 1Pixabay Skeeze

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