BUILT - Construction Workers' Guide

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BUILT- Building Trades Unions Ignite Less Tobacco

Summary Statement

A handbook on the dangers of smoking, how smoking interacts with respiratory hazards in the construction workplace, and tips on making the workplace safer as well as ways to stop smoking.Part of a collection. Click on the 'collection' button to access the other items.

 "When I looked over, there was a big cloud. All of a sudden nobody could breathe. I don't know what type of cleaner it was, some new stuff. It just choked us immediately. The boss and manager were right there. They didn't say anything."

How Construction Work Can Affect Your Health

It’s not always easy to recognize when health problems are related to your work. Don’t ignore headaches, frequent colds and coughs, dizziness, skin problems or other symptoms you think may be related to your job. They may be caused by chemicals or other conditions at work.

Dizziness, headaches. Common causes:
Solvents, ozone, noise, eye strain, smoke (including tobacco).
  EYES Red, watery, irritated. Common causes:
Cement, wood dust, fiberglass, welding fumes, smoke (including tobacco).
Sneezing, coughing, sore throat. Common causes:
Cement, fiberglass, wood dust, solvents, welding fumes, smoke (including tobacco).
Wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, lung cancer.
Common causes: Cement, fiberglass, wood dust, welding fumes, smoke (including tobacco), solvents.
Redness, dryness, rash, itching, skin cancer.
Common causes:
Solvents, cement, fiberglass, wood dust.
Nausea, vomiting, stomach ache.
Common causes:
Some wood dust, solvents, long-term lead exposure, job stress.
NERVOUS SYSTEM Nervousness, irritability, sleeplessness, tremors. Common causes:
Long-term solvent exposure, longterm lead exposure, job stress.
For men: low sperm count, damage to sperm.
For women: irregularities in menstruation, miscarriage, damage to egg or fetus. Common causes:
Lead, toluene, some other solvents.

How Do I Know If the Construction Job I’m Working on Is Hazardous?

 To figure out what the hazards of a particular construction job may be, ask these questions and check the chart on the following pages. The chart also suggests important control measures that can be taken to protect workers.

1. Is there a lot of dust in the air?
    The air on construction sites, especially during demolition work, can contain asbestos, silica, cement dust, fiberglass and wood dust. Most of these dusts can irritate your eyes, nose and lungs. Some can cause bronchitis, asthma and even cancer.
2. Do any of the materials you work with contain solvents?
    Varnishes, wood sealers, paints, thinners, adhesives and many other construction materials contain solvents. They can get into your body through your skin or when you breathe the vapors. Solvents can give you headaches and make you dizzy. If you work with them for many years, they may damage your liver or nervous system.
3. Do you use any materials that contain polyurethane or epoxy resins?
    Many construction materials — like adhesives, sealants, waterproofing agents, floor and wall coverings — are made up of isocyanate (the raw material for polyurethane) or epoxy resin systems. The chemicals in these systems can get into your body through your skin, or when you breathe the mists or vapors. They can irritate your nose, eyes, throat and lungs. Some people may develop an allergic reaction, similar to asthma.
 4 What are other trades doing nearby?
    In construction work, someone else’s work may produce welding fumes, chemical vapors, asphalt smoke or other toxic hazards. These can affect everyone in the vicinity. Be aware of what other trades are doing, and protect yourself.
5 Are you exposed to cigarette smoke?
    If you or someone else smokes on the job, you’re being exposed to many more toxic substances. Cigarette smoke contains over 4,000 chemicals.
Construction Hazards : Dusts

Health Effects
ASBESTOS Maintenance and demolition work; roof tear-offs. Construction: floor tile, roofing materials, drywall compounds, gaskets, packing materials, electric insulation, corrosion resistant coatings, heat resistant materials, asbestos cement pipe and sheet. Short-term: Lung irritation (if very high levels). Long-term: Asbestosis (scarring of the lungs); cancer of the lung, stomach, and intestinal tract. Asbestos workers who smoke have over 10 times the cancer risk of asbestos workers who do not smoke.
SILICA Maintenance; remodeling; demolition work; application of fireproof coatings; sandblasting; tunneling. Long-term: Serious, incurable lung disease (silicosis).
CEMENT Construction and demolition of foundations, sidewalks and floors. Short-term: Eye, nose, skin and lung irritation. Causes skin rashes and infection. Allergic skin rashes. Long-term: Small decrease in lung function, wheezing, shortness of breath.
WOOD DUST Construction, remodeling and demolition. Sawing: wood, plywood, particle board. Short-term: Allergic skin rash, asthma, nasal irritation, skin and eye irritation. Long-term: Nasal cancer.
FIBERGLASS & OTHER INSULATION MATERIALS Insulation on pipes, other insulation, air conditioning. Short-term: Skin, eye, nose and throat irritation; shortness of breath. Long-term: May cause lung cancer.

ASBESTOS Asbestos removal jobs may be done only by licensed asbestos contractors.

Isolate asbestos work and provide exhaust ventilation or dust collecting device.

Keep material wet while removing it.

Wear special protective clothing and correct respirators. Remove clothing and shower before leaving enclosed area. Post caution signs and labels.

Smoking should be prohibited.
OTHER DUSTS Wear the correct respirator if required (not a paper dust mask).

Vacuum or wipe off surfaces using wet mop or rags. (Avoid sweeping and blowing away dusts to clear surfaces.)

Keep work materials wet where possible when sanding, grinding, sawing, etc.

Don’t drink, eat or smoke in work area.

Wash hands before eating and before breaks.

Change clothing and, where possible, shower before going home.

Use local exhaust ventilation if not working in an open area.

Isolate dusty operations such as sawing and sanding to reduce worker exposure.

Construction Hazards : Metals - Dusts & Fumes

Dusts & Fumes
Health Effects
CADMIUM, CHROMIUM, COPPER, ZINC, MAGNESIUM Welding; drilling, cutting and sawing pipes; scraping rust or coatings. Short-term: Metal dusts can be irritating to skin, nose, eyes and lungs. Effects of fumes differ depending on metal (see MSDS). Some metals (such as zinc, copper, and magnesium) cause metal fume fever (flu-like symptoms with fever, nausea, chills and muscular aches and pains).
Long-term: Depends on metal (see MSDS). Cadmium and chromium can cause cancer.
LEAD Cable splicing, demolition, remodeling, painting, pipefitting, plumbing, roofing, sheetmetal, iron work, welding on lead or surfaces with lead paint or coatings; brass fixtures may release lead. Short-term: Effects are very rare. If exposure is high, symptoms similar to long-term effects may occur.
Long-term: Damage to brain and nerves (tremors, muscular weakness, lack of coordination), damage to reproductive systems (men and women), stomach problems, anemia, damage to kidneys.

METAL DUSTS Wear the correct respirator if required (not a paper dust mask).

Vacuum or wipe off surfaces using wet mop or rags. (Avoid sweeping and blowing away dusts to clear surfaces.)

Keep work materials wet where possible when sanding, grinding, sawing, etc.

Don’t drink, eat or smoke in work area.

Wash hands before eating and before breaks.

Change clothing and, where possible, shower before going home.

Use local exhaust ventilation if not working in an open area.

Isolate dusty operations such as sawing and sanding to reduce worker exposure.
METAL FUMES Avoid welding on toxic metals or coatings; brush or scrub off coatings first.

Natural ventilation is often adequate in open areas.

Position yourself so that fumes don’t blow into your face.

Use local exhaust ventilation in indoor areas or confined spaces.

Wear the correct respirator when ventilation or other controls are not possible.

Lead: Shower and change clothes to avoid bringing lead home to your family.

Construction Hazards : Solvents

Special Hazrds
BENZENE Causes leukemia. These solvents may be found in:

Wood sealers
Cleaning and degreasing
Other products
METHYLENE CHLORIDE May cause cancer.
TOLUENE Liver and kidney damage at high levels. May cause birth defects.
TRICHLORO-ETHYLENE Liver damage. May cause cancer.

Health Effects
Most solvents you work with, including acetone, TCE or other degreasers, affect your health in similar ways:

Short-term: Most organic solvents affect the brain the same way drinking alcohol does. Overexposure causes symptoms resembling drunkenness, including headaches, "feeling high," nausea, dizziness, and at high levels, loss of coordination. Other short-term health effects are eye, nose and throat irritation, and skin rash.
Long-term: Repeated, frequent overexposure over months or years may cause long-lasting damage to the central nervous system (the brain and nerves).
Where possible, substitute materials that are less toxic.

Use ventilation to remove vapors.

Wear the correct respirator (refer to MSDS).

Wear proper protective clothing, correct gloves, goggles, face shields.

No smoking. No open flame nearby. Vapors can build up quickly and become extremely dangerous in confined spaces.

Follow OSHA confined space entry procedures where required. (These include pretesting atmosphere before entry; mechanical ventilation of space; respirators; rescue person.) Many fatalities occur in confined spaces.

Construction Hazards : Other Chemicals

Health Effects
EPOXY RESINS Impermeable paint, primer for hardwood floors, surface paint and adhesive for concrete walls.. Short-term: Irritation of eyes, nose and throat.
Long-term: Asthma.
POLYURETHANES (ISOCYANATES) Seam sealers, polyurethane insulation, electrical wire coatings. Short-term: Irritation of eyes, nose and throat.
Long-term: Asthma, other allergic lung diseases. May cause cancer. If workers get sensitized to these chemicals, they will become seriously ill at the slightest exposure.
COAL TAR PITCH Roofing, road work. Short-term: Irritation of eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Burns, skin irritation, increased sensitivity to sunlight.
Long-term: Cancer of the lungs, skin and other parts of the body.

EPOXY RESINS AND POLYURETHANES When possible, use one-component products where chemicals are already polymerized.

When spraying, use the correct air-supplied full face respirator (see MSDS).

Avoid skin and eye contact.

Wear safety goggles and gloves.

Get proper training.

Never smoke or use an open flame around these chemicals, which are fire and explosion hazards..
If you smell it, get out!
COAL TAR PITCH Where possible, substitute less harmful materials such as coal tar enamel.

Keep melt temperature as low as possible.

Install devices to reduce exposure when loading.

Keep kettle covers in good shape and closed whenever possible.

Wet down old pitch roofs before and during tear-offs.

If dust is high, wear the correct respirator.

Wear eye protection.

Protect the skin, even in hot weather.

Launder work clothes often.

Wash up before eating, smoking, drinking and going home.

If soap and water are not available use waterless cleaner, not gasoline.

 Some of the Chemicals in Cigarette Smoke

There are over 4,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke. More than 50 of them are known to be carcinogens (to cause cancer). Many of the chemicals in cigarette smoke are also found in the workplace and regulated by OSHA. Some are found in common household products. This is a small sample of the toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke.

Acetaldehyde: Used in glues and resins; suspected carcinogen; may increase the absorption of other hazardous chemicals into the bronchial tubes.

Acetone: Used in solvents; irritating to the throat, nose, and eyes; long-term exposure can cause liver and kidney damage.

Acrolein: Used in polyester resins and herbicides; an ingredient in tear gas and other chemical warfare agents; extremely toxic; intensely irritating to the upper respiratory tract and eyes.

Acrylonitrile: Used in synthetic resins, plastics and rubber, and as a fumigant; also known as “vinyl cyanide”; suspected human carcinogen.

1-aminonaphthalene: Used in weed control; causes cancer.

2-aminonaphthalene: Banned in industrial uses; causes bladder cancer.

Ammonia: Used in cleaners; causes asthma and elevated blood pressure.

Benzene: Used in solvents, pesticides and gasoline; causes leukemia and other cancers.

Benzo[a]pyrene: Found in coal tar pitch, creosote, and some asphalts; causes skin cancer, lung cancer and reduction in reproductive capacity.

1,3-Butadiene: Used in rubber, latex, and neoprene products; suspected carcinogen.

Butyraldehyde: Used in solvents and resins; powerful inhalation irritant; affects the lining of nose and lungs.

Cadmium: Used in non-corrosive metal coatings, bearings, pigments and storage batteries; causes cancer; damages kidneys, liver and brain.

Carbon Monoxide: Produced by burning (in gasoline engines, welding, gas-powered tools, etc.); decreases heart and muscle function; causes fatigue, dizziness, weakness; especially toxic for the unborn, infants and people with lung or heart disease.

Catechol: Used as an antioxidant in dyes, inks and oils; causes high blood pressure, upper respiratory tract irritation and dermatitis.

Chromium: Used in metal plating and alloys, wood treatment and preservatives, and pigments; causes lung cancer. Stainless steel welding involves the greatest exposure.

Cresol: Used in solvents, disinfectants, and wood preservatives; highly irritating to the skin; acute inhalation levels cause upper respiratory, nasal and throat irritation.

Crotonaldehyde: Used as a warning agent in fuel gases; causes chromosome aberrations; reported to interfere with immune function.

Formaldehyde: Part of resin used in particleboard, fiberboard, and plywood, also used in foam insulation. Causes nasal cancer; can damage lungs, skin and digestive system.

Hydrogen Cyanide: Used in the production of resins and acrylic plastics and as a fumigant; released in metal treatment operations and metal ore processing; used for executions in some
states’ gas chambers; weakens lungs; causes nausea, headaches, and fatigue.

Hydroquinone: Used in paints, varnishes and motor fuel; causes eye injuries, skin irritation and central nervous system effects.

Isoprene: Used in rubber; similar to 1,3- butadiene; causes irritation to the skin, eyes and mucous membranes.

Lead: Used in paint and metal alloys (solder, brass, bronze); damages brain, nerves, kidneys and reproductive system; causes anemia and stomach problems; may cause cancer; particularly toxic to children.

Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK): Used in solvents; irritating to nose, throat, and eyes; depresses the central nervous system.

Nickel: Used in stainless steel, other metal alloys and alkaline batteries; causes upper respiratory irritation, bronchial asthma and cancer.

Nicotine: Used as a highly controlled insecticide; exposure can result in seizures, vomiting, depression of the central nervous system, growth retardation, developmental toxicity in fetuses; mild nicotine poisoning results in diarrhea, increase in heart rate and blood pressure, headache, dizziness and neurological stimulation.

Nitric Oxide: Created by combustion of gasoline; major contributor to smog and acid rain; linked to Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and asthma.

NNN, NNK, and NAT: These compounds are found only in tobacco, NNN causes cancer and may cause reproductive damage; NNK is a powerful lung carcinogen; NAT is a possible carcinogen.

Phenol: Used in resins in plywood and other construction materials and in epoxy resins; highly toxic; affects the liver, kidney, respiratory, cardiovascular and central nervous system.

Propionaldehyde: Used as a disinfectant; causes irritation of the skin, eyes and respiratory system.

Pyridine: Used in solvents; causes eye and upper respiratory tract irritation; causes nausea, headaches and nervousness; may cause liver damage.

Quinoline: Used as a corrosion inhibitor and as a solvent for resins; causes genetic mutations; possible human carcinogen; severe eye irritant; linked to liver damage.

Resorcinol: Used in laminates, resins and adhesives; irritating to skin and eyes.

Styrene: Used in insulation, fiberglass, pipes and plastic; possible human carcinogen; may cause leukemia; causes headaches, eye irritation, slowed reaction time, fatigue and dizziness.

Toluene: Used in solvents, oils and resins; highly toxic; causes fatigue, confusion, weakness, memory loss, nausea, loss of appetite and drunken-type actions; linked to permanent brain damage.

Secondhand Smoke Facts

 You may be smoking, whether or not you ever put a cigarette in your mouth. If you work where people smoke, you may inhale the equivalent of a pack a day of other people's smoke. Here are some facts about secondhand smoke.

  • Secondhand smoke contains 4,000 chemicals, including over 50 known carcinogens. Smoke from the tip of a cigarette has 20 times the carcinogens as smoke inhaled by a smoker.
  • Secondhand smoke is the third leading preventable cause of death in America, killing over 53,000 nonsmokers every year. 50,000 of these deaths are from heart disease. 3,000 are from lung cancer.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified secondhand smoke as a Group A carcinogen — a substance known to cause cancer in humans. There is no safe level of exposure to Group A carcinogens, which also include asbestos and benzene.
  • If you breathe secondhand smoke, your health risk is higher if you’re also exposed to toxic chemicals. For example, tobacco smoke contains hydrogen cyanide, a chemical that paralyzes the cilia (tiny filtering hairs) in your lungs. That makes it harder for your lungs to filter out other toxics.
  • Tobacco smoke adds harmful chemicals to those already in the work environment, increasing the total amount you’re exposed to and increasing the risk of cancer, heart disease, asthma, respiratory problems and other diseases.
  • Breathing secondhand smoke means more chemicals for your body to handle. For example,  welding on the construction site produces carbon monoxide. Tobacco smoke also contains carbon monoxide, so you are getting a much larger dose. Long-term exposure to carbon monoxide weakens the heart.
  • When the chemicals in tobacco smoke combine with certain other cancer-causing substances, such as asbestos, the combination greatly increases the risk of lung cancer.
  • Secondhand smoke hurts kids by causing ear infections and respiratory problems such as asthma. It also has been linked to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
  • California law bans smoking in indoor workplaces to protect workers from secondhand smoke. Some employers and some local laws ban smoking in outdoor areas, too.

    The Odds Against Tobacco Users’ Health


    Smoking causes:
    • 90% of lung cancer deaths
    • 80% of emphysema and chronic bronchitis deaths
    • 30% of cancer deaths
    • 20% of heart disease deaths

    Each year, over 400,000 Americans die prematurely because of smoking. Smoking kills more Americans each year than alcohol, cocaine, crack, heroin, homicide, suicide, car crashes, fires and AIDS combined. Smoking also causes impotence.


    Smokeless tobacco is not a safe alternative to smoking. Chewing tobacco causes cancer of the mouth, larynx and esophagus. Long-term “chew” users are 50 times more likely to get cancer of the cheek and gum than non-users. Chewing tobacco contains arsenic, cyanide, lead and benzene. It also contains fiberglass and dirt, which cause abrasions on the skin so the tobacco can enter the bloodstream more readily. Chewers get three times as much nicotine as smokers. It can be even harder to quit chew than cigarettes.


    In the last 25 years, nearly half of all American adults who ever smoked have quit. Millions and millions of people have quit. But most smokers try several times before they quit permanently. Nicotine is a highly addictive drug. The reason people use tobacco is to satisfy their addiction to nicotine. Quitting smoking or chewing tobacco can be at least as difficult as quitting cocaine or heroin.


    For help in quitting, contact the California Smokers’ Helpline. This program provides free and confidential telephone counseling to help you quit smoking or chewing tobacco.

    (800) 662-8887 (English)
    (800) 456-6386 (Spanish)
    (800) 400-9866 (Mandarin and Cantonese)
    (800) 778-8440 (Vietnamese)
    (800) 556-5564 (Korean)
    (800) 933-4833 (TDD/TTY)
    (800) 844-2439 (Chewing Tobacco)

    Combining Tobacco Smoke & Workplace Toxics

    When tobacco smoke combines with other toxics in the workplace, there is extra danger to your health.

    1. Some combinations ADD TO the odds against your health.
      If you smoke, your lungs aren’t as good at keeping other chemicals out. Tobacco smoke damages your lungs’ ability to protect themselves against other toxic substances you may inhale.

      LUNGS: The odds of construction workers getting bronchitis, asthma or other lung diseases are high because you may work with asphalt, coal tar, treated wood and other lung hazards. Tobacco smoke makes it harder for your lungs to get rid of those chemicals.

      Smoking also means more chemicals for your body to handle. Your body may be able to stand small amounts of some chemicals, but not larger amounts. Tobacco smoke can cause higher levels of the same harmful chemicals you’re already exposed to on the job. It also adds other harmful chemicals.

      HEART: Welding on a construction site produces carbon monoxide. Tobacco smoke also contains carbon monoxide. You may not feel sick with a 5 to 10% level of carbon monoxide in your blood. But a 10 to 20% level can cause headaches and make you abnormally tired. Long-term exposure to carbon monoxide weakens the heart.
    2. Some combinations MULTIPLY the odds against your health.
      Some toxics can work together inside your body to strengthen each other’s power to cause disease. This is called synergy. For example, the odds against your health multiply when you combine tobacco smoke with asbestos:

      Scientists suspect that tobacco smoke and the ferric oxide in welding fumes also combine to multiply your risk of getting cancer.
    3. If you smoke, you’re more likely to have contact with workplace chemicals.
      Dangerous chemicals can enter your body when you breathe them, swallow them, or get them on your skin. The dust from some chemicals, like lead or cadmium, may collect on your cigarettes. Then, when you put a cigarette to your lips and inhale, you are not only taking in tobacco smoke, you are also taking in extra toxics.
    4. Smoking on the job increases the risk of fire and explosion.

    5. Smokers are more likely to have job injuries because they can be distracted by eye irritation, coughing or having only one hand free.

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