In most countries, the construction industry operates through contractors, who hire workers in specific trades on a job-by-job basis: electricians, plasterers, carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers, sheet metal workers, and painters. This short-term employment pattern leads to poor supervision of trades workers and a high turnover of employees.
Construction workers are exposed to a wide range of hazards. They are also exposed to mechanical hazards (ladders, scaffolds, unprotected edges and openings in platforms and floors, exposed electrical wiring, scrap, and debris).
Falls from heights, falling objects, and over exertion are the most common incidents that occur among construction workers and cause the greatest numbers of lost-time days. Guards, railings, safety harnesses, and personal protection (hardhats and steel-toed boots) should be standard practice to prevent such risks. Fires can also break out at building sites.
Many different types of craftsmen work on construction sites. Many of them, especially carpenters and plumbers, experience ergonomic and physical risks due to the tools, work postures, and loads handled. Construction workers have many problems with muscles and joints.
As in all workplaces, construction workers may have stresses on the job that come from pressure to do the job too quickly, or problem relationships with the supervisors or coworkers. Workers in the construction trades are often very independent. They like to do things their own way and sometimes there are conflicts.
Construction workers also work with some very hazardous chemicals, such as solvents and lead, and silica dust. Cancer has been a major problem in the past due to exposure to asbestos dust from insulation materials.
The risk of cancer has been highest in workers handling asbestos insulation but is also increased in other workers who are exposed to asbestos on the job, such as sheet metal workers.
Although asbestos has been banned in many countries, it remains a hazard, especially for workers who must remove it. Each of the construction trades also has its own problems and hazards for workers:
- Bricklayers experience hand, shoulder and arm injuries, and lower back pain from ergonomic risks, including manual handling of bricks or carrying bricks on platforms supported on the shoulder.
- Carpenters and cabinet makers also experience exposure to wood dust, which can cause allergies and respiratory irritation.
- Electricians are exposed to high-current power leading to electrical burns and face the risk of electrocution due to contact with overhead power lines.
- Heavy equipment and crane operators are exposed to noise and whole-body vibration, leading to back pain.
- Insulation workers are exposed to small fibres of the insulation material, which can cause lung disease and cough. Asbestos is no longer used for insulation in most countries but insulation workers who used it in the past often got cancer from it.
- Painters are exposed to solvents and may be exposed to lead. Poisoning from these chemicals can occur in different situations. Solvent poisoning is more common in spray painting. Lead poisoning is more common in countries that use lead paint in houses and in painters who use or remove lead paints in outdoor structures, such as bridges.
- Plumbers may be exposed to asbestos (from insulation) and lead from pipes.
- Roofers have a dangerous job because they work at height. Without fall protection (a harness that can be work to keep the worker from falling) they can fall to their death or have a serious injury.
- Roof-laying (putting down an asphalt roof on a building) is a particularly dirty job, often performed under hot conditions, requiring the roofer to pick up and carry heavy rolls of felt and buckets of asphalt. Asphalt burns, fire, and exposure to polycyclic organic hydrocarbons (a family of chemicals that can cause skin changes and cancer) are big hazards on the job. Roofing workers also have an elevated risk of skin cancer.
- Asphalt paving workers are exposed to the same fumes as roofers and show elevated death rates from lung cancer and respiratory disorders.