New approach can reduce occupational health hazard risks in construction workers

Published on December 11, 2012 at 6:52 AM · No Comments

"Some of the most pressing occupational health hazard risks in construction" are associated with masonry operations, asphalt roofing, and welding, wrote Deborah Young-Corbett in an article recently accepted by the Journal of Civil Engineering and Management.

To reduce these health risks to construction workers, Young-Corbett, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and a member of the university's Myers-Lawson School of Construction since 2007, has studied much of the existing literature, identifying numerous gaps or problems in current construction practices.

As a result, Young-Corbett is working in a new field of engineering known as Prevention through Design or PtD. The optimal method of preventing occupational illnesses, injuries, and fatalities is to "design out" the hazards and risks; thereby, eliminating the need to control them during work operations, Young-Corbett said. This approach involves the design of tools, equipment, systems, work processes, and facilities in order to reduce, or eliminate, occupational hazards and environmental risks.

She is teaching these new state-of-the-art design tactics in her classes, providing her undergraduate and graduate students with a better understanding of how to improve the long-term success of the construction industry. Young-Corbett is a certified industrial hygienist, safety professional, and hazardous materials manager with a background in environmental sciences, human factors engineering, and industrial engineering.

In 2008, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) launched the PtD initiative in an attempt to mitigate hazards in the construction sector in the design stage. Yet, four years later, Young-Corbett's review of the industry's safety procedures shows some of the "barriers" to PtD adoption and she identifies strategies for the construction industry to use to improve its health records.

Young-Corbett provides evidence in her assessment of the industry of a "gap" in the PtD initiative that does not address the approaches to "occupational health hazard control," with the key word being "health." These "health risks arise when workers are exposed to chemical, biological, or energetic hazards that might lead to various illnesses or fatalities," Young-Corbett said.

For example, additional changes in tool selection in masonry could alleviate much of the health risks, according to Young-Corbett. With a masonry operation, a key issue is to reduce the silica dust produced when sawing. Now that wet methods are available for hand-operated grinders used for surface finishing and cutting slots, these devices can keep operators' exposures to silica below Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) limits, she noted.

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