Worker Hazards and Protections

How Hazards Happen

Workers face repeated exposures to chemicals on the construction site from cutting, sawing, sanding, applying, and handling building materials. During construction processes, chemicals can be absorbed through skin contact, injections or punctures (e.g. stabbed by a nail), breathing, and ingestion. Workers can inhale tiny particles containing hazardous chemicals from construction dust without engineering controls or the proper and continued use of a respirator. High concentrations of gasses from toxic wet-applied products can enter the lungs unless there is proper ventilation on site and/or the right personal protective equipment (PPE) for the job. 

Hierarchy of Controls

The Hierarchy of Control is a system used in industrial work to prevent and limit the amount of chemical exposure or hazards you are exposed to while working on a job. The preferred order of action based on general effectiveness is:

  1. Elimination
  2. Substitution
  3. Engineering controls
  4. Administrative controls
  5. Personal protective equipment (PPE)

If the hierarchy is used in this order workers are reducing their risk of illness or injury. As seen in the image below, PPE is the last listed form of control. Therefore, it is assumed the  best way to protect workers from the hazards of harmful chemicals is to eliminate the use of those products in your projects or to substitute for less harmful materials. There are many ways in which a worker can be exposed to chemicals on the job site because it is often not possible to keep PPE perfectly fitted throughout the course of a day or even a task, making it the least effective control. 

informational graphic about the hierarchy of controlling hazards

Hazards of Spray Foam

Spray polyurethane foam (SPF) contains harmful hardening agents called isocyanates that irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract. Workers and those who live and/or work around the jobsite can be exposed to isocyanates by inhaling vapors or through skin contact. Those who develop sensitization (allergy) to isocyanates can experience asthma attacks and skin inflammation. Isocyanates pose a high risk to the health of installers and those in relative proximity during and after the installation of SPF. 

factsheet / Isocyanates | NIOSH | CDC / The Dangers of Using Spray Foam Insulation - LHSFNA

Spray foam also contains flame retardants called TCPP that are carcinogenic and suspected endocrine disruptors. A study found that even when SPF installers wore proper gloves, respirators, and coveralls, they were still found to have elevated levels of TCPP in their urine post-shift. The study concluded that skin contact was likely a primary pathway of exposure when workers would adjust the spray nozzle, inspect the quality of the foam, or clean up foam waste. Workers can also be exposed to TCPP by accidentally contaminating their food during lunch breaks or smoking, and breathing in particles that linger in the air after installation.

Hazards of VOCs in wet-applied products (adhesives, sealants, water-proof coatings, paints)

Many products that are applied while wet release harmful VOCs in vapor during and after installation. VOCs can affect short term health by irritating the eyes, nose, and throat, making it difficult to breathe or even causing nausea or central nervous system damage. Some VOCs released from wet-applied products can cause cancer. 

While it is often not possible to avoid wet-applied products in construction, opt for products that are factory finished whenever possible, choose products with third-party certifications, and always look for products with low to zero VOC content and emissions. 

Hazards of Silica

Silica is a mineral found in sand and stone, Silica  is often used as an extender in sealants to help with appearance, durability and resistance to dirt. Exposure to silica is harmful, and common through processes like using stationary handheld saws, grinders, or jackhammers.

Of an estimated 2 million workers who are exposed to silica, 840,000 are exposed to an amount of silica that exceeds the permissible exposure limit or the amount of exposure deemed safe. 90% of the individuals exposed to silica are employed in the construction industry. Silica exposure related health effects are well-established and supported by the scientific community. One of the most harmful of those effects is Silicosis. Silicosis is a progressive disease induced by the inflammatory effects of respirable crystalline silica in the lung, leading to lung damage, scarring and possibilities of disability or death. While U.S. OSHA only finalized their silica standard in 2016, the health problems caused by this mineral have been recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor since 1938. 

Asbestos and Mesothelioma

Asbestos is a mineral fiber commonly found in rock and soil.  For many years asbestos was a common ingredient in building products because it is strong, heat-resistant and a good insulator. But asbestos is also extremely harmful if inhaled or ingested. Because it is so dangerous,most new building  product uses have been banned in the U.S. and EPA is considering strengthening its restrictions  to match the actions of 55 other countries .  

Asbestos exposure is still a very big problem. Asbestos is present in existing spray-on fireproofing and other surface applications, wall and pipe insulation, vinyl floor tiles, the backing on vinyl sheet flooring, and adhesives, roofing, and siding shingles. Walls and floors around existing wood-burning stoves were often protected with asbestos paper, millboard, or cement sheets and hot water and steam pipes were standardly coated with asbestos material or covered with an asbestos blanket or tape

Exposure to asbestos commonly occurs when an asbestos containing product is disturbed in any way in which the particles and fibers are released in the air. This can happen during product use, demolition work, building or home maintenance, repair, and remodeling. Even one time exposure to asbestos can be harmful and can cause ailments such as mesothelioma, one of the most deadly cancers. It is a rare and deadly cancer that forms in the lining of the lungs or abdomen and is caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. The survival rate for malignant mesothelioma is often low, and the average life expectancy is around 12-21 months with treatment.

How To Protect Yourself From The Dangers Of Chemical Exposure

Certain building materials and installation processes pose significant health risks to workers. Installers who are in trades that work with hazardous material frequently have a higher risk of developing associated health problems and should be educated about the hazards, organized to find safer substitutes, and vigilant in their use of PPE. 

Union membership improves workplace safety and worker health. By addressing concerns collectively, union workers are protected from individual retaliation, and are better equipped and more successful in pressuring employers to prioritize worker safety. Unions also monitor and report workplace accidents, negotiate health and safety protocols, and lobby for legislation that addresses workplace safety. 

Hazard Mitigation in the Workplace

Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs) are created by OSHA, NIOSH, and ACGIH to protect workers in the workplace. Only OSHA’s permissible exposure limits (PELs) are enforceable and many of OSHA PELs are outdated and do not provide enough protection for workers. OSHA’s own website describes the agency’s inability to keep workers safe.

To mitigate these hazards in the workplace, the hierarchy of controls should be followed to ensure that workers are protected in the most efficient, effective, and reliable ways possible. As a result, if hazardous chemicals can’t be eliminated or substituted for a safer chemical, engineering controls should be used to reduce risk. Engineering controls such as exhaust ventilation, both general and local, to draw fumes, mists, gasses and vapors away from the workers is a common and effective way to reduce exposures provided proper maintenance and monitoring is ensured. 

For hazardous dust and particles, using tools integrated with water delivery systems for cutting, chipping, drilling, sawing and grinding are effective control mechanisms. Employers can also adjust workplace practices to limit exposure (e.g., encouraging workers to work safely, providing adequate breaks away from hazardous workplace areas), but it is far less reliable for a variety of factors. Personal protective equipment, such as respirators, are even less reliable and should only be used when all other controls are not enough to reduce exposures to safe levels. 


The path towards safe and healthy homes includes the abatement of toxic legacy chemicals. Workers in lead and asbestos abatement do important work by safely removing those materials from older homes, and must be properly trained and accredited for the health and safety of themselves, fellow workers, and occupants. The EPA requires individuals and firms who perform lead abatement projects in pre-1978 target housing and child-occupied facilities to be certified and follow specific work practices. Workers must also take state-approved courses to become certified in asbestos abatement. Additional training resources are available online, several of which we have linked here.