In the steady expansion of human infrastructure, particularly roads, many workers are exposed to asphalt in the course of their duties. Though this substance is critical in many endeavors – most notably roadway construction and roofing – it also poses severe health consequences for workers who are inadequately protected. Knowing the health risks, and knowing how to keep workers safe, is critical to ensuring a happy, healthy, and long-lasting workforce.
The consequences to one’s health are such that the CDC published a full 150-page report dealing entirely with the dangers associated with asphalt (linked at the end of this article). Some of the least severe symptoms associated with exposure to asphalt fumes include eye irritation, as well as nose and throat irritation. From there it only gets worse: nausea, stomach pain, loss of appetite, headache, fatigue, wheezing, and shortness of breath have all been associated with exposure to asphalt. There has even been some connection found between bronchitis and asphalt exposure to add to the health dangers posed by this substance.
Finally, there is inconclusive evidence regarding a link between asphalt fumes and various forms of cancer. The studies regarding the connection between asphalt fumes and cancer is inconclusive – only roofers have shown a positive correlation between lung cancer and their activities, and even this information is not considered accurate as the studies are unable to control for the other carcinogens roofers are exposed to in the course of their work. However, when dealing with cancer, even a correlation is sufficient cause to take protective action in most cases.
With such a long list of possible health risks associated with asphalt exposure, it is clear that exposure to the fumes should be avoided at all costs. However, the fact remains that asphalt is incredibly useful – most particularly in road paving, so the question becomes: what steps can workers and employers take to ensure those who need to work around this substance are adequately protected? Fortunately, there are various steps one can take to reduce the associated risks.
Personal protective equipment should be readily available and used by workers. Full face masks should be employed in any operation where one may be mixing or otherwise working with hot asphalt. Trying to use simple respirators with no eye protection or eye protection without some sort of mask is insufficient. Obviously, since the substance is at such a high temperature, skin contact should be avoided if only to mitigate the burn risk, though other potential health risks exist with skin contact. Long coveralls and thermal insulated gloves should be employed where possible.
Other measures should be aimed towards minimizing worker exposure to hot asphalt – as much of the mixing processes should be insulated as is practicable. Using asphalt mixes that produce fewer fumes is also highly recommended for the protection of workers against the associated health risks. Another option for reducing exposure is keeping enough workers on staff to allow for frequent rotations. This can be a potential solution (funds permitting) for mitigating the associated hazards without having to stop work altogether. In short: the less each individual worker is exposed, the better.
Once the job is done, good health and hygiene practices should round out your protection efforts. Eating or drinking should not be done until after one has taken the time to clean – this is to help reduce the risk of contamination. This also means food and water should be stored away from the immediate area where the work is being conducted in order to prevent contamination from occurring. A final note on health and safety after the job is done: keep in mind that a model of truck used for patching asphalt has a hopper that is coated in diesel before it is filled. This creates a potential explosive hazard in addition to all of the above risks – thus simple rules of no smoking and efforts to avoid static discharge in the area should be made to better protect workers.
The steady growth of our economy demands an increased infrastructure to support it, and asphalt as the road paving of choice is not likely to change anytime soon. As such, there will always be a need for workers to risk exposure – but fortunately, by keeping aware of the issue and taking some basic steps to protect against the risks, you can greatly reduce the associated risks while still contributing to the growth of our national infrastructure.
Center for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2001-110/pdfs/2001-110.pdf
Occupational Safety and Health Administration: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/asphaltfumes/solutions.html
Electronic Library of Construction Occupational Safety and Health: http://www.elcosh.org/document/1629/d000252/Asphalt%2BTraining%2BGuide.html?show_text=1
About Author: Brennen Kliffmueller works full time as a lawyer specializing in worker’s compensation cases, and has personally seen his share of asphalt injuries. To make sure neither your works nor your company require his services, he heartily endorses going to eCompliance.com for help on making a safer workplace. You can find more examples of his work on Google+.