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COPD in Construction

Posted on Friday, 22nd November 2019

COPD in Construction

Around 1 million people in the UK currently suffer from some form of COPD, with around 25,000 people dying from the disease every year. But even beyond those figures, many more remain undiagnosed and unaware of the dangers. Estimates published by HSE suggest around 6% of adults in the UK show some signs of COPD.

To coincide with World COPD Day on 20th November 2019, this week’s blog looks at what COPD is and why it’s a particular concern for the construction industry.

What is COPD?

COPD stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. COPD isn’t a specific condition; it’s a term used to describe a range of diseases that make it difficult for sufferers to get air in and out of their lungs. There are 3 different strains of COPD:

  • Emphysema
  • Chronic Bronchitis
  • Refractory Asthma


Emphysema is caused by damage to the lung’s alveoli, also known as air sacs, leading to swelling and expanding. This makes it much more difficult for sufferers to absorb oxygen into their blood. It also makes the lungs less springy, which causes air to get trapped.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic Bronchitis affects the bronchial tubes in the lungs. These tubes have small hairs called cilia which allow mucus to move through the lungs to be coughed out. Standard Bronchitis occurs when the tubes are irritated, becoming ‘Chronic’ when the damage has meant the tubes have lost their cilia. This makes mucus difficult to clear and causes more coughing, which in turn creates more mucus.

Refractory asthma

Refractory asthma is similar to standard asthma, but it doesn’t respond to the usual medications. This means the swelling that occurs in the lungs during asthma attacks cannot be reversed.

What causes COPD?

The vast majority of COPD cases are related to either smoking or working with harmful pollutants. Construction workers are one of the groups most likely to contract the disease at work. Inhaling dangerous pollutants is an occupational risk when working on building sites. It’s currently estimated that every year 3,000 construction workers suffer breathing and lung problems that are caused or made worse by their job.

Breathe Freely Health Statistics

Working with Harmful Pollutants

Long exposure to certain chemicals and dusts has been linked to COPD, a major concern for those in the construction industry who are surround by many different potentially harmful materials on building sites. Harmful pollutants such as ammonia and asbestos are particularly dangerous, but simple things like dust, mould and bacteria can also contribute. Some of the main on-site COPD hazards include:

  • Silica dust
  • Wood and other dusts
  • Welding and soldering fumes
  • Diesel exhaust fumes
  • Bitumen/asphalt fumes
  • Legionella and other biological agents
  • Solvents used in paints, glues or other surface coatings
  • Isocyanates, epoxy and other resin vapours and mists

What are the symptoms of COPD?

The symptoms for COPD vary depending on the person, the severity and the specific disease they are suffering, but broadly speaking the warning signs to look out for are:

  • Regular shortness of breath
  • Frequent coughing
  • Increased breathlessness
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest

You should also look out for mucus in your coughs. If mucus comes up and the cough lasts at least three months for two years in a row, it’s a strong sign of Chronic Bronchitis.

Can COPD be cured?

At the moment, there is no cure for COPD, however the disease can be managed and treated. A COPD diagnosis is not a death sentence, it is possible to live a long, full life with the disease. However, you will have to make changes to your lifestyle to help protect your lungs and slowdown the impacts of the lung damage. How this is treated will depend on the type and severity of your condition.

How to prevent COPD?

If you encounter a lot of dust, mould or bacteria in your working environment, it is important that you take the risks of COPD seriously. You need prepare yourself with the correct equipment and training to fulfil job safely and legally. Training in how to manage risks and how to properly use your equipment is a legal requirement. RPE (Respiratory Protective Equipment) & PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) are essential to protect workers health in these workspaces, and both need training in order to ensure they are being used correctly.

Qualitative Face Fit Testing

Training with Essential Site Skills

We at ESS take the dangers of COPD very seriously. We offer many different training courses and certification to ensure workers are safe in environments where there are potentially harmful pollutants:

Certificate in Controlling Health Risks Construction (CCHRC)

This course is for anyone who oversees potential health risks on construction sites. Once completed, learners will be to identify and control common health risks in order to reduce the risks posed by on-site hazards.

The course is broken down into the following subject areas:

  • Risk assessments
  • Chemical hazards
  • Physical hazards
  • Ergonomic hazards
  • Principles of control
  • PPE & RPE

Face Fit Testing (Qualitative)

UK employees who wear tight-fitting respiratory protective equipment (RPE) have a legal requirement to have certification proving their protective equipment not only fits them, but also protects them from the dangers they face in their job. Completing this training will give workers the correct certification to prove the safety of them and their equipment which is valid for 2 years, unless there is an issue equipment before then.

IOSH Managing Occupational Health and Wellbeing

This course is designed to provide managers and supervisors the know-how to improve health and wellbeing across their organisation. This course is not just aimed at the construction industry, but any organisation, in any sector.

The course covers the following topics:

  • Why managing workplace health and wellbeing makes good business sense
  • Health risk management
  • Fitness for work and the importance of managing worker’s health status
  • How the promotion of a wellbeing programme add value to an organisationBreathe Freely Supporter Logo

The Breathe Freely Campaign

We are proud to be supporters of Breathe Freely, a BOHS initiative aiming to increase awareness of lung diseases on construction sites. They promote occupational hygiene in order to protect the health of workers and reduce risks to construction companies.

The campaign aims to highlight the responsibility of organisations to make sure the proper practise is in place to avoid the threat of COPD. Failing to do so can have serious implications for the organisation in terms of their finances, staff morale and reputation.

Looking for more information?

The British Lung Foundation (BLF) held World COPD Day on the 20th November and have plenty more information on the condition on their website, including advice and support. If you need more information about our service or courses, why not speak to a member of our training team on 0115 8970 529. Alternatively, you can email us at [email protected], or take a look at our course index page to see what other qualifications we have available.

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