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What hazard on UK construction sites can be 100 times smaller than a grain of sand, and cause 19,000 cases of respiratory diseases and 12,000 fatalities each year?

At the start of this year, we identified construction dusts – such as wood dusts, silica dusts and welding fumes – as one of the occupational health priorities for construction teams to be aware of in 2024.

It remains a significant hazard, precisely because so few people are aware of the true risk it poses to health – the effects of exposure to construction dusts take a far longer time to appear than other more immediate safety hazards.

That being said, while making your worksite safe is often very simple, the work cannot or should not start if you aren’t aware of the risks.

That is why we will explain what you need to know about construction dusts, and how you can protect yourself from them.

‘Construction dusts’ include a broad range of airborne, breathable substances that are generated on building sites. These can include dusts and fumes produced by:

In a similar way to airborne asbestos fibres, many of these dusts and fumes are barely visible to the naked eye – but they pose a significant health risk when inhaled, even in small amounts:

This is because breathing in these dusts, fumes or fibres – and not just RCS – over a long period of time poses the greatest risk to health.

This often takes the form of a chronic respiratory disease, such as lung cancer, COPD, asthma or silicosis, which may take decades to develop.

If construction dusts are so prevalent, and their effects so harmful, why are we continuing to underestimate the risks?

1. Construction dusts are a (mostly) invisible threat

As we have mentioned, breathable construction dusts are nearly impossible to see with the naked eye or sometimes present as a ‘dust cloud’.

In some cases, being aware of them on a busy construction site can be effectively impossible without the right equipment or testing methods.

Equally, immediate safety risks, such as mechanical, fire or electrical hazards can appear as a much more urgent priority than protecting workers from construction dusts.

This has been a significant finding of HSE’s own ‘Dust Kills‘ campaign, in which 1,000 inspections carried out in 2023 revealed significant on-site failings, such as RPE not being worn (or not being face-fit tested), no ‘on-tool’ extraction being used on high-powered cutting tools, and no damping down of dust to prevent airborne circulation.

However, this is only part of the issue…

2. A lack of understanding

Secondly, the results of those inspections also indicate to us that it isn’t necessarily a lack of will to follow COSHH guidelines – concerningly, some construction teams simply aren’t aware of them at all.

The summary report of the inspection campaign revealed that:

“Inspectors are still finding sites where the hierarchy of controls are simply not considered at all; where no effective design or planning has taken place to eliminate risks from dust, such as considering the use of pre-cut materials, and nothing being in place to minimise the risks by use of suitable control measures, such as water suppression and on-tool extraction and the use of RPE.”

It might not be a case that we are underestimating them – but that certain teams simply don’t know they are there: which is even more hazardous.

That being said, there is another potential, much broader reason why construction teams are misunderstanding the risks of construction dusts…

3. A culture of safety… but what about health?

Finally, as we have discussed previously, there is a risk that construction sites place the most emphasis on ‘safety’ and often neglect measures to protect ‘health’.

For example, a fall hazard, fire or electrical risk on a construction site that could cause serious injury or death may appear far more urgent in the moment than stopping exposure to barely visible fumes, dusts and particulates, which take years to develop into life-threatening conditions.

The proof is in the statistics:

Simply put, construction teams across the UK are adept at minimising safety risks. However, far greater attention needs to be placed on preventing chronic illnesses that develop over time – with construction dusts being a significant cause.

Being unaware of the risks of construction dusts is undoubtedly hazardous.

The consequences for a breach range from a simple improvement notice to a substantial fine – in the case of one construction firm, a £15,000 fine was given for multiple failings to control wood dusts.

That, of course, goes without mentioning the human cost.

However, the positive side is that once you are aware of the risks of construction dusts, controlling them is often very simple.

Broadly speaking, there are four steps to protecting your workforce:

  1. Assess every potential risk, including your COSHH assessment

You need to complete a COSHH assessment before you start work to remain compliant with COSHH and EH40 guidelines. This will ensure that you understand the full scope of risks your workers are exposed to on your site, and protect them with sufficient remedial measures.

COSHH assessments will ensure you can identify potential risks before they disrupt a project, provided that all hazardous substances are identified.

Further to this, those working in the heritage sector may be exposed to lead-based paints, for which a specific risk assessment will be required under the Control of Lead at Work Regulations, and testing of affected paints would need to be organised.

For example, avoiding unnecessary cutting, but also carrying out work in well-ventilated areas if possible.

Once you know your ‘at-risk’ areas, you can control those risks. Water dampening an area can lessen the effects of dust clouds, whilst on-tool extraction with ventilation systems can capture hazardous airborne dusts early.

Your appropriate respiratory protective equipment needs to be worn, and it needs to fit your face to be effective.

However, the first principle before starting any work is to be aware of the risk.

If you work with asbestos, you are familiar with the legal requirement to have asbestos awareness training before working on a site where asbestos may be present.

We believe that when even experienced construction teams can underestimate the risks posed by construction dusts – and that so many continue to fall ill or lose their lives to them – the same attention needs to be drawn to construction dusts as asbestos, or other prominent health risks.

This is why AEC run pioneering half-day online construction dusts awareness sessions that ensure builders of all experience levels gain awareness of the risks and understand how to protect themselves from them.

AEC can support any occupational hygiene activity that will make your worksite safer – from monitoring air quality and fitting face masks to carrying out vital COSHH risk assessments.

Awareness about construction dusts will save lives, and it’s easier than you think to get support. Simply call us at 0203 384 6175 or visit aec.uk to learn more.

Here are the health & safety events that defined 2023, and why they matter today

With the launch of HSE’s campaign ‘Asbestos – Your Duty’ for duty holders in January 2024, it’s a pertinent reminder that awareness of workplace health and safety risks is one of the most valuable tools that duty holders and construction leaders have to make informed decisions that protect people efficiently, cost-effectively, and in a compliant manner.

With this in mind, we’re taking this chance to shine a light on the key health and safety events in asbestos, Legionella and occupational hygiene in 2023, and explain what we collectively need to learn from them.

If you work with asbestos, Legionella or on worksites where people may be exposed to construction dusts, you know that ensuring the health and safety of those in your care is your absolute priority.

Only have a minute? See our video summary here.

In January, two trade unions released landmark reports, highlighting the extent to which asbestos remained a risk in the NHS:

This situation pushed the TUC in particular to renew calls for a National Asbestos Register, as well as a 40-year deadline to remove asbestos from all non-domestic buildings.

Why does it matter?

While the statistics are new, the problem isn’t. The BBC called this situation a ‘ticking time bomb’ in 2017. The debate about whether to manage asbestos or remove it at a national level is ongoing, but for duty holders and construction leaders, as long as asbestos remains in their workplaces, or a part of their refurbishment or demolition projects, they need to ensure they act to remove it or keep it safe and monitor its condition.

This involves providing support and training to those who are making day-to-day decisions about the operation and maintenance of buildings.

In the first half of the year, the HSE launched two campaigns focused on making young tradespeople aware of the risks of asbestos (‘Asbestos and You’) and construction dusts (‘Dust Kills’).

In particular, ‘Dust Kills’ supported over 1,000 inspections of workplaces for compliance, and reported on its findings here – highlighting both good practices and cases where no controls had been put in place.

Why does it matter?

Many young constructors entering the workforce were born after asbestos was banned, and simply do not know the risks that it can present unless they have the correct support and training.  Likewise, they must also be appropriately protected from construction dusts – which goes well beyond just wearing appropriate Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE).

Asbestos fibres and many construction dusts are virtually invisible to the naked eye, and they have a long latency period before exposure results in respiratory health problems.

This is why construction leaders must take action now to help young people minimise health risks – and awareness training is the vital first principle.

The Sunday Times’ ‘Act Now on Asbestos’ campaign launched, publicising the nature of the asbestos risk affecting over 21,500+ schools in the UK, as well as sharing the personal stories of those afflicted by decades of exposure – a legacy that continues to this day.

The outcome of this campaign was far-reaching and nearly immediate, compelling the HSE to launch a programme of inspections into school asbestos management procedures.

Why does it matter?

Much like the reports focusing on asbestos in hospitals, the ‘Act Now on Asbestos’ campaign targeting schools shows the extent to which the nature of the asbestos risk is changing.

Though tradespeople remain at risk, ‘occupational exposure’ caused by working in an environment with asbestos is an increasingly pressing problem. We explained how in this blog.

This changing ‘face’ of the problem presents a challenge for duty holders, who can’t just look at asbestos safety from project to project, but as a challenge of day-to-day management.

In August, Legionella bacteria hit the headlines in a high-profile case, wherein 39 asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm barge had to be temporarily evacuated due to the presence of Legionella.

Our Technical Director, Bob Harris, was invited by BBC News to explain the Legionella management issues that could have played a part.

Why does it matter?

Behind the high-profile nature of this case, it served as a reminder that, even without the risk of a major public relations incident, duty holders must remember their fundamental management steps:

1) Assess the risk of Legionella in your system.

2) Implement the recommended control measures from your risk assessment and carry out remedial works to make your systems safe.

3) Monitor the risk with ongoing inspection and testing.

You can download a full Legionella risk management flowchart here.

In the last months of 2023, HSE released its annual report into occupational health – revealing that over 12,000 people lose their lives each year due to historical exposure to respiratory hazards, including over 5,000 deaths related to asbestos exposure.

However, there is important additional context that suggests the HSE’s numbers (which we summarise here) aren’t fully reflective of the changing nature of the problem – or its true scale.

The year concluded with Mesothelioma UK, presenting groundbreaking findings to Parliament about one of these issues – the risks asbestos still poses in schools and hospitals.

Why does it matter?

With over-75s and certain groups of teaching and educational staff not being included in the HSE statistics, there is likely to be a greater number of deaths attributable to asbestos than suggested.

Moreover, with 19,000 people a year developing respiratory illnesses, duty holders need to immediately be aware of just how potent asbestos and construction dust exposure can be – regardless of how long it takes for symptoms to manifest – and act to protect those in their care.

It’s very difficult to predict exactly what will happen: there’s no guarantee that a register or a national asbestos removal plan will happen, despite these being up for debate in the House of Commons, for example.

However, this shouldn’t be disheartening for duty holders and construction leaders, simply because the measures to protect those in their care are effective, and within their control:

Most importantly, however, seeking expert advice is vital – whether you are unsure of where to start, or whether you need to delegate these management priorities to a trusted expert that will keep you compliant and your projects on track.

AEC have over 25 years’ experience keeping workplaces safe, working efficiently, pragmatically and cost-effectively.

If you work with (or have a duty to manage) asbestos or Legionella, or need to protect site workers from construction dusts, simply call us at 020 3384 6175 for tailored advice on your next project.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed almost every aspect of our lives, including the way processes and operations are conducted within the workplace. However, it is just as important as ever to protect the long-term health of your employees.

As an employee you have a legal duty to comply with the Health and Safetyat Work etc. Act 1974, Section 2.

Hazards in the workplace still remain and you must control worker exposure to harmful substances such as gases and dusts and processes that generate noise or vibration.


To prevent exposure to your workers you should:

  1. Assess the risks
  2. Control the risks – are your controls adequate and do you have written evidence?
  3. Provide instruction and training to staff so they understand why control measures are important.
  4. Monitor and record – you need to be able to provide written evidence to show that your control measures are working.

Our Occupational Hygienists can measure and assess exposures in your workplace to ensure you comply with the law.


A COSHH assessment concentrates on the hazards and risks from hazardous substances in your workplace.Employers have a legal duty to assess the risk to health and to be aware of what contaminants (such as wood or flour dust) employees are exposed to and in what quantities.

Is your assessment up to date?

Exposure monitoring is a way of measuring the extent of e.g. dust or noise levels during a specific task.It provides assurance on the quality of your control measures and offers peace of mind that you are protecting your workers health.

Importantly, you need to be able to provide written evidence to show that your control measures are working and are effective in reducing exposure. 

Jobs that use powered hand tools for a significant length of time are at a higher risk of exposure and ill-health problems such as hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS), including white finger, carpal tunnel syndrome and muscoskeletal issues. 

HAVS is preventable, but once the damage is done it is permanent!

Our consultants can help you identify whether there is likely to be a significant risk from hand-arm or whole-body vibration in your workplace by carrying out a vibration risk assessment.


When maintained correctly, LEV systems can protect worker health by controlling exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace. However, many employers experience problems when local exhaust ventilation (LEV) systems are incorrectly installed or not maintained on a regular basis.

An LEV system must be examined and tested at least once every 14 months and test results must be kept for a minimum of five years.

For advice call Manchester 0161 872 7111 London 0203 384 6175 or email [email protected]

We are exposed to diesel exhaust fumes through everyday activities, whether that be through our commute to work, our job or the ambient air around us. The exposure can occur from not only motor vehicle exhaust, but from other modes of transport such as trains, ships and power generators.

For decades there has been mounting concern about the cancer-causing potential of diesel exhausts, and in 2012, the US National Cancer Institute/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health examined the exposure levels of emissions in underground miners, which showed an increased risk of death from lung cancer in exposed workers.

The study provided sufficient evidence for the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO), to reclassify diesel engine exhaust as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1 Carcinogen).

What are the risks to health?
Approximately 12,000 people die each year in the UK from cancers and respiratory diseases caused by negligent exposures to hazardous substances. Inhaling diesel fumes can affect your health, and can cause irritation of your eyes and/or respiratory tract. 

Prolonged exposure to diesel fumes, in particular to any blue or black smoke, can lead to coughing, breathlessness, asthma, and may result in an increase in the risk of lung cancer.

You should inform your employer if your workplace vehicles are producing blue or black smoke!

Workplace exposure 
The major source of workplace exposure to diesel exhaust fumes is from the emissions from heavy vehicles that use diesel fuel such as:

Workers such as bus drivers, lorry drivers and taxi drivers, as well as police officers and traffic wardens, are occupationally exposed to DEEE.

Employers – you have a legal duty
If you are an employer who uses vehicles that generate diesel exhaust fumes you need to consider reviewing your existing risk assessment as well as controls and internal practices in order to continue to be compliant under the COSHH Regulations 2002.

For further advice and support, contact our Occupational Hygiene team Manchester 0161 872 7111, London 0203 3846175 [email protected]

Guidance taken from
HSE http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/books/hsg187.htm
IARC https://www.iarc.fr/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/pr213_E.pdf

In our latest video, AEC’s Technical Director, Darren Evans and Senior Occupational Hygienist, David Russon give an in-depth overview on the recent HSE consultation on the ‘implementation of Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive’. In particular, they provide advice on four significant substances: respirable crystalline silica (RCS), chromium VI, refractory ceramic fibres (RCF) and hardwood dusts.


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What is the HSE consultation and EU directive?

OELVs (known as WELs in the UK) are set to help protect workers from the ill-health effects of exposure to hazardous substances. In January 2018, the EU Directive ‘the implementation of Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive’ came into force and states new OELV limits are to be introduced i.e. reduced by January 2020 in all member states, with further incrementally targeted reductions in WELs for Cr (VI) and hardwood dust in several years’ time. 

In a bid to help protect workers from the effects of exposure to carcinogens and mutagens in the workplace, the HSE have circulated a consultation document which focuses on the new OELV limits and have said these will be implemented in the UK (whether Brexit happens or not), because the impact is not considered significant because:

Revision of exposure limits 

The Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive amends 11 new and binding OELVs and amends 2 existing OELVs for carcinogenic substances. The Directive also classifies Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS) as a carcinogen where it is generated as a result of a work process, such as cutting blocks or stone on construction sites.  

A full list of the substances can be viewed on page 4 https://consultations.hse.gov.uk/hse/carcinogens-mutagens-revision-of-limit-values/

By 2020, it is likely that the new OELVs limits will be expected to be reduced in all workplaces in the UK. The table below shows examples of the four significant substances that will be affected.  

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Employers – Prepare for the changes now!
If you are an employer, who use or generate any of the hazardous substances on the directive list, you need to consider reviewing your existing risk assessment as well as controls and internal practices in order to continue to be compliant under the COSHH Regulations 2002.

Does your current risk assessment meet the HSE’s expectations, and are you taking the correct steps to protect your workers health?

Does previous exposure monitoring indicate control of exposures to below the new WEL? 

It is your legal duty to control workplace exposures to as low as reasonably practicable, and always below the WEL.  In order to meet the new revised WELs limits, employers should:

1. Review COSHH assessments – is it still valid?

2. Review control measures – are your controls adequate and do you have written evidence?

3. Carry out exposure monitoring to prove that your controls are providing protection.

4. Review your information and training – do your employees have the correct information and training and understand why control measures are so important to protect worker health?  

AEC can help

Our team of occupational hygienists can assist with:

For advice call our team Manchester 0161 872 7111, London 0203 384 6175 

The full HSE consultation document can be viewed here https://consultations.hse.gov.uk/hse/carcinogens-mutagens-revision-of-limit-values/

* AEC is UKAS accredited for asbestos surveys, air testing and bulk sample analysis only.

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