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.

 “Pues, si uno lo hace por necesidad, por la familia, pero uno debe pensar en su salud, que mañana no voy a estar aquí.”

“Well, we work out of necessity, for the family. But you have to think about your health — that tomorrow, I might not be here.”

How to Make the Job Safer

There are different ways to reduce chemical hazards on the job. The best ways are to stop using the most toxic materials, or to design the work and equipment so that no one is exposed to toxics.


Sometimes you can use a substance that is less toxic. For example, many of the materials you work with contain solvents. Water-based or alcohol-based solvents are usually safer than “chlorinated hydrocarbons” (solvents with chlorine in them) and “aromatic hydrocarbons” (like toluene and xylene). But always check out the hazards of the substitute to make sure it is really less hazardous.


It’s better to prevent the hazard from ever reaching a worker than to rely on protective clothing or gear. For example, local exhaust ventilation (a “sucker” that pulls dust or welding fumes away right at the source) gets rid of a toxic substance before anyone has a chance to breathe it.


Work rules and procedures can help cut down on your exposure to toxics. For example, keeping the workplace clean can limit the amount of dusts in the air and help reduce other safety hazards. Workers should never eat or smoke in the work area. California’s law prohibiting smoking in indoor workplaces eliminates exposure to secondhand smoke. Some employers and local governments also ban smoking in outdoor areas.


Goggles, gloves, respirators and other personal protective equipment can help protect you gainst toxic hazards on the job, but they don’t usually protect you completely. They shield you from hazards rather than eliminating them. That’s why you should rely on personal protective equipment only if there is no better way to control the problem.

Checklist: Controlling Hazards on Your Construction Site

  • Is it easy to identify all the toxics on your site? For example, does every substance have a label with its name, hazards and manufacturer listed? Are MSDS's (Material Safety Data Sheets) available for each substance?
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  • Is it possible to substitute less toxic materials for some of the hazardous substances used on the site? For example, can you use wood treated with less toxic preservatives?
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  • Are there ways to do the job that reduce exposure to toxic substances? For example, do workers use water to keep dust down?
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  • Where the work generates dust, welding fumes, vapors or toxic mists, is there a local ventilation system (a "sucker" or hood) that draws them away from the worker's face?
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  • Does the employer measure the levels of asbestos, welding fumes, solvents or other hazards in the air?
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  • Has the employer trained everyone on the site about when to use a respirator, how to select the correct one and how to use it properly? Has the employer "fit-tested" everyone to make sure their respirators fit well?
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  • Are there written rules about entering confined spaces? Does the employer train people to protect themselves in confined spaces?
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  • Are products containing solvents used only in well-ventilated areas, and far away from welding operations?
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  • Do workers know that they shouldn't use solvents to clean their hands?
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  • Do workers take showers and change clothes before going home, so they won't take toxic materials with them?
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  • Do people avoid eating, drinking or smoking near toxic materials? Do they wash their hands before they eat, drink or smoke?
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  • Are all tools and equipment in good condition?
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  • Does your employer get workers together for regular safety meetings?
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  • Is the workplace smoke-free?
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    Use the Right Respirator

     Respirators can be hot and uncomfortable. You don’t want to wear one if you don’t have to. They also aren’t as effective as some other kinds of protection. But if there is no way to remove a harmful material from the air you are breathing (by using a safer chemical, better ventilation or other controls), you will need to use a respirator to protect yourself. Here are some guidelines to help you decide if you’re getting the right protection.

    1. Your employer must set up a respiratory protection program.
      If you need to use a respirator on the job, Cal/OSHA requires your employer to set up a “respiratory protection program.” The program should help you choose the right respirator, make sure it fits, and get training about how to use it and take care of it.
    2. No one respirator is right for all kinds of hazards.
      You can check the label on the respirator or on its cartridge to find out what hazards it protects you from. Make sure it is approved by “NIOSH” for protection against the hazards you’re working with.

      CAUTION: If you have heart disease or respiratory problems, you should check with your doctor before using a respirator.

    • DUST MASKS protect only against wood dusts and other dusts that are not very toxic. They don’t protect you against spray mists or toxic dusts like asbestos, silica or lead. They also will not protect you against chemical vapors or secondhand smoke. If you use a dust mask, make sure it has a double strap and a good nose grip. Never rely on single strap masks.

    • DUAL CARTRIDGE RESPIRATORS protect against various hazards. These respirators use pairs of filters or cartridges. Different filters and cartridges protect against different hazards.

      Use the right MECHANICAL FILTER for dusts, metal fumes and mists.

      Use the right CHEMICAL CARTRIDGE for toxic gases and vapors from solvents or paints.

      Use a COMBINATION RESPIRATOR for all the above — dusts, fumes, mists, gases and vapors. Combination respirators are available for any set of inhalation hazards.

    • AIR-SUPPLIED RESPIRATORS give you fresh air from a tank or through an airline. Use them when you work in a confined space where there is not enough oxygen to breathe.

      CAUTION: If there is a rip or tear in the mask, it will not protect you from any hazards.
    3. Make sure your respirator fits properly.
      No one respirator will fit everyone. If your respirator does not fit properly on your face, it will leak. You cannot tell if it fits by how it feels. The law requires your employer to test the fit to make sure no vapors or dusts can leak in around the edges.
    4. Make sure your respirator is maintained properly.
      Your respirator must be kept clean, and the cartridges or filters should be changed regularly. A respirator with a worn-out cartridge is worse than no respirator at all. (It’s not protecting you, but it’s making it harder to breathe.)
    CAUTION: If you have a beard, it is impossible to get a proper fit with most respirators.

    Tips for Taking Action

    Once you have decided to try to improve health and safety on the job, you need to do some planning. Here are some tips for coming up with a realistic action plan.

    Get support of co-workers.
      No matter whether you’re trying to get your employer to supply respirators that fit, install a ventilation system or establish an outdoor workplace smoking policy, the first and most important step to take is to get the support of your co-workers.
    Change takes time.
      It takes time to convince co-workers that it’s worth taking some action to eliminate a hazard. In many workplaces, people have found it useful to:
    • Seek help from the union (or consider organizing one).
    • Take a survey of the workforce to document the symptoms and illnesses that seem to be related to each worker’s job.
    • Identify other workers who are concerned.

    • Identify resources for information and help.
    • Have a meeting.
    • Form a health and safety committee, or join one that’s already been set up.
    • Form a group to meet with the employer, or choose a co-worker the employer will listen to.
    Talk to your employer.
      Some employers take their responsibility for providing a safe workplace seriously. Once they understand that conditions on their sites can cause serious health problems, they will attempt to cooperate in changing them. Some possible approaches are:
    • Explain how serious the problem is.
    • Explain how many workers’ compensation claims there could be, and point out that they could be expensive and increase insurance rates.
    • Show how production, absenteeism and morale will improve if hazards are reduced.
    • Show the advantages of a health and safety committee.
    • nsurance carrier about health and safety services the insurer may provide.
    • Tell them about Cal/OSHA’s free consultation service for employers.
    If your employer won’t cooperate…
      When employers don’t cooperate, workers still can:
    • Seek help from a union (or consider organizing one).
    • File a grievance (if there’s a contract).
    • File a Cal/OSHA complaint or get someone else to file one.
    • File a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.
    • Tell the press about the problem. Go public in the community.
    • Consider a job action or strike (only as a last resort).
    Your Legal Rights to Health & Safety

      (California Labor Code §6400, 6401)

      Both the federal and California Occupational Safety and Health Acts say that an employer must provide a workplace that is free from hazards and meets health and safety standards.

      In California, Cal/OSHA regulations also say that your employer must set up an effective injury and illness prevention program (General Industry Safety Order 3203). This regulation requires:

    • A written plan with the name of the person who is responsible for health and safety on the job.
    • Information and training for workers about possible hazards, given in a language that workers understand.
    • A system for inspecting the workplace and correcting hazards promptly.
    • A system for workers to report hazards without fear of being fired or punished in any way.
      (California Labor Code §6404.5)

      California law says that no one shall smoke or permit smoking in an enclosed workplace.

    • “Indoor” means four walls and a ceiling. It doesn’t matter whether there are windows, louvers or sliding doors that open.
    • Smoking is permitted in outdoor workplaces, unless an employer or a local ordinance bans it.
    • Employers may provide breakrooms for smokers, as long as they meet ventilation requirements and as long as employers also provide non-smoking breakrooms.
    • If smoking is allowed in your indoor workplace, you have the right to file a complaint. Different cities and counties have different enforcement agencies. Check with your local health department to find the enforcement agency in your area. If your employer has had three violations within a year, you can file a complaint with Cal/OSHA.
      (California Labor Code §6398, 6399, 6408)

      You have the right to know which toxic materials you work with and how they may harm you. You also have the right to see the results of any tests done to measure chemicals in your workplace. You may see your medical records, and records of injuries and illnesses related to work.
      (California Labor Code §6309)

      The fastest way to correct a hazard may be to deal with your employer directly. But if this doesn’t work, you have the right to file a complaint with Cal/OSHA. The law allows you to file a complaint confidentially. Cal/OSHA won’t reveal who made the complaint.
      (California Labor Code §6310)

      An employer may not fire you, or punish you in any way, for using the rights listed here. If your employer discriminates against you for using your health and safety rights, contact your union and/or the nearest office of the State Labor Commissioner.

      In some cases, you also have the right to refuse to do an unsafe job without reprisal if there is a “real and apparent hazard.” Before refusing to do hazardous work, always try to get your employer to correct the hazard and/or inform Cal/OSHA about it.
      (California Labor Code §6401, 6403)

      The law requires that the employer provide you with safety and protective equipment which is “reasonably adequate” to let you do the job safely — like gloves, safety glasses and respirators. You are not responsible for the cost.
      (California Labor Code §3600)

      If a job hazard injures you or makes you sick, or if it makes a previous health problem get worse, workers’ comp will pay a percentage of your wage while you are recovering. Workers’ comp also pays for related medical expenses. For details on how to collect these benefits, call the toll-free number of the Workers' Compensation Information and Assistance Unit (1-800-736-7401). You may also wish to contact a workers' comp lawyer.
      (California Labor Code §9040)

      The law requires that employers give free medical tests to anyone who works with asbestos, lead and a few other specific hazardous materials. The law also says that your employer must tell you the results of these tests.

    The California Labor Code is available in most public libraries and on the Internet. Cal/OSHA has many specific regulations, called “standards,” which give more details on the rights described in this section and other safety requirements. These are found in Title 8 of the California Administrative Code, General Industry Safety Orders and Construction Safety Orders. These Cal/OSHA Standards are available on the Internet.

    What If Someone’s Smoking Indoors at the Work Site?

    Even though California law prohibits smoking in indoor workplaces, sometimes people still smoke there. Here are some tips about what to do if someone smokes indoors at your workplace.

    • Talk to your co-workers and see if the smoke is bothering other people, too.
    • Talk to the person who is smoking, and explain why the smoke is not good for them, and others in the workplace.
    • Talk to the employer and explain that they’ve got to enforce the law.
    • If you don’t feel comfortable doing these things, contact your local public health department’s tobacco control program and explain the problem. You have the right to file a complaint directly with the health department or other enforcement agency in your area. (The health department people will tell you which agency enforces the no-smoking law.)
    • The enforcement agency can fine both the individual smoker and the employer who allows smoking in an indoor workplace. Even if the smoker is not an employee, he or she can be fined. Generally, fines are $100 for the first violation, $200 for the second violation and $500 for the third violation.
    • If your employer has had three violations within one year, you have the right to file a complaint with Cal/OSHA. OSHA Penalties can range up to $70,000 depending on the seriousness of the situation.
    How to Use Cal/OSHA

    When to File a Complaint
      Often on construction sites, health and safety hazards are present for only a short time. By the time Cal/OSHA can get to the site, the hazard may not be there. It’s best if you, your co-workers and your union can get hazards eliminated by working directly with the employer. Sometimes, however, you should call Cal/OSHA. You should do this:

    • Immediately, if there is a situation that threatens someone’s life.
    • When there has been a serious injury on the job.
    • When you or your union cannot resolve a health and safety problem with the employer.
    How to File a Complaint
    • You may file your complaint by phone, in person or by mail. If you phone in your complaint, it’s a good idea to document it by following up in writing. To find your nearest Cal/OSHA office, look in the State Government Pages of the phone book (under “California, State of, Industrial Relations Department, Occupational Safety and Health”).
    • You do not have to use your name, but you can if you want. Your name will be kept confidential. If you prefer, ask your union representative to help you file the complaint or file it for you.
    • Try to make your complaint complete and convincing. Let Cal/OSHA know how serious the problem is and how many people may be affected. Describe exactly where the problem is located (draw a diagram, if it helps). Explain what has happened, or may happen, as a result. You don’t need to specify which safety regulations you think are being violated.
    How Will Cal/OSHA Respond to Your Complaint?
    • You will get the best results if you call and follow up on your complaint. Keep in touch with the Cal/OSHA office.
    • Cal/OSHA will review your complaint, assign an inspector and send him or her out to conduct an unannounced inspection. You and your union rep have the right to go with the inspector during the “walkaround” inspection. If Cal/OSHA finds violations of safety regulations, they will order management to fix the problem within a specific period of time. They also may require the employer to pay a fine. If the employer appeals the citation, you and your union rep have a right to participate in the appeal process.
    What Else Can Cal/OSHA Do to Help?
    • If you and your employer agree to work together to investigate and solve a health and safety problem, Cal/OSHA can help you. Cal/OSHA has a free Consultation Service that will assist employers or joint labor-management committees.
    • Your employer must get a permit from Cal/OSHA for certain construction and demolition jobs. Before granting the permit, Cal/OSHA may meet with the contractor, workers and their union representatives to make sure the job will be done safely.
    Your Right to Know About Toxics on the Job

    Under California law, your employer must:

    1. LABEL
      Label all containers of toxic materials. Proper labels have the name of the chemical, warnings about the chemical’s hazards and the name and address of the manufacturer.
    2. TRAIN
      Train every employee about the toxics used on the job. The training must include information on the dangerous chemicals you work with, how they can harm you, the symptoms to watch out for and how to protect yourself.
      Give you detailed information on each hazardous chemical you work with, when you ask for the information. The main source of this information is the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet). Each hazardous chemical should have an MSDS. Your employer is responsible for getting the MSDS for any hazardous substance used on the job, and making sure you can look at it. Your training must explain how to read the MSDS.
    — These requirements are found in California Administrative Code,
    Title 8, General Industry Safety Order 5194.

    You also have the right to see:
    • Records of any company tests done to measure the level of toxic chemicals in the workplace. (General Industry Safety Order 3204)
    • Your own medical records if the company keeps them. (General Industry Safety Order 3204)
    • Records of any illnesses and injuries that you and your co-workers suffered because of conditions at work. The law requires that an employer keep these records for five years. They’re called “Log 200.” (General Industry Safety Order 3203)
    • The employer’s written plan for preventing illness and injury. This plan must include a way to identify and solve health and safety problems. (General Industry Safety Order 3203)

      If the employer refuses to give you any of this information, you have the right to file a Cal/OSHA complaint. (California Labor Code §6309)

    Reading Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS's)

     MSDS Example
     MSDS Example continued

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