Skip to Content, Skip to Navigation

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

It’s Academic — A healthy rebuild

GRACE CHEN examines the research literature to identify the occupational health risks facing people involved in the Christchurch rebuild – and in construction generally.


Both continuous noise and the more dangerous impact noise are widespread in this industry. The consequences of unprotected exposure will be long-term deafness, short-term interference with communication, and an increased risk of accidents. Excessive noise can also be associated with other conditions such as hypertension, sleep disturbance, anxiety, headaches and nausea.

Hand-arm vibration, also referred to as vibration white finger, can result from such activities as breaking, grinding, drilling or cutting concrete. Cold weather in the Christchurch winter can be a complicating factor. Whole body vibration is also a risk to heavy vehicle drivers1,2.

Manual handling

This is a major risk for upper limb disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome, epicondylitis, and rotator cuff problems. Although tasks in the construction industry are varied, they are characterised by manual handling of heavy materials, high peak hand force with periodic repetitive motions, and awkward postures.3

Respiratory hazards

Construction workers are exposed to a wide variety of dusts in such tasks as drilling, cutting bricks and concrete blocks, grinding of concrete floors and walls, and renovation and demolition activities4-6. Respiratory diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) and silicosis can all be the consequence of such exposures.

Skin irritants

Skin problems are common in construction with the handling of timber and steel. Abrasions and cuts are everyday events. Solvent-based glues are used increasingly, causing de-fatting of the skin, and epoxy resin-based surface injection can cause allergic dermatitis. Exposure to cold and inclement weather adds to these risk factors.

An overseas study showed that among construction workers, 54% of contact dermatitis was allergic and 31% irritant7. The most common suspected causal agents were chromates (29%), cement, plaster and masonry (10%), resins (9%), wet and dirty work (8%), thiurams (8%), cobalt salts (3%), soaps and detergents (3%), nickel salts (3%) and flux (2%).

Cancer-causing agents

A number of international and NZ studies have examined mortality and cancer incidence in construction workers in association with specific exposures.


Asbestos remains the most important work-related cancer-causing agent in New Zealand, with an estimated four to six new cases of mesothelioma and lung cancer occurring every week. A recent report8 showed that notified cases to the Asbestos Disease Panel indicated a preponderance of workers in the construction industry (carpenter/builders 22%, plumbers/fitters/laggers 40%). Asbestos exposure has also been associated with an increased risk of laryngeal cancer9 and oesophageal adenocarcinoma10.

Silica & cement dust

Silica dust has been confirmed as a lung carcinogen and is a feature of concrete drilling, cutting and grinding, and cement dust has been associated with an excess of pharyngeal cancer9, oesophageal adenocarcinoma10 and an increased risk of stomach and lip cancer in the construction industry.11

Asphalt fumes/wood dust/diesel fumes

Construction workers exposed to asphalt fumes and wood dust have an increased risk of lung cancer,12-17 stomach cancer, 13,17 esophageal cancer,17 bladder cancer,14 cancer of the lip14 and non-melanoma skin cancer.18 Diesel exhaust fumes generated by heavy equipment used in the construction industry has been associated with lung cancer, bladder cancer and also associated with an increase in multiple myeloma risk.19-22

Solar radiation

Solar radiation is a common exposure in this industry and can also be associated with exposure to chemicals (PAHs, solvents) which can have a role in promoting skin carcinogenesis.23

Psychosocial issues

Construction workers have reported a high proportion of stress (14%)24,25 and with an influx of outside workers into Christchurch the associated cultural issues together with shift work, overtime and work incentives can lead to fatigue, work stress, poor performance, reduced workplace vigilance, and worksite accidents.

Other health issues


A small study was carried out in Christchurch by MBIE to investigate polyester and epoxy resin use in concrete crack repair and bonded resin flooring. This followed the notification of a concrete repair worker who reported with early symptoms of solvent neurotoxicity and possible occupational asthma.

Carbon Monoxide (CO)

The known sources of carbon monoxide poisoning in the construction industry are machinery powered by combustion engines/generators (26.3%), forklifts, concrete saws and power washers.26


The basic principles of induction, training, information, safe work methods and health monitoring are well recognised methods for managing such risks and have been shown in a model to improve workplaces in small demolition operations.27 Reducing exposure to the identified hazards is also fundamental to managing health risks.

The Christchurch rebuild is an opportunity to provide a template for best health practice in the construction industry.

GRACE CHEN is a research assistant with Massey University’s Centre for Public Health Research. The indicated literature references are available on

comments powered by Disqus

From Safeguard Magazine

Table of Contents