Reactive Chemicals in Products Cause Health Risks

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Researchers are studying ways for construction workers to avoid exposures to toxic chemicals and remain safe on the job.

By Karen Angelo

If you work in construction, you’ve probably been exposed to epoxy resins and isocyanates, highly reactive chemicals that can cause severe health problems such as occupational asthma and contact dermatitis, risking both well-being and livelihood. 

Very little research on worker exposures and solutions to limit exposures has been conducted, until now. 

The National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) through the Center for Construction Research and Training, awarded a five-year, $1M grant to Assoc. Prof. Dhimiter Bello and Prof. Susan Woskie, both of the Department of Work Environment, to study ways to keep workers safe. 

“These chemicals have among the lowest occupational exposure limits ever established, putting workers at a severe risk,” says Bello. “The products that contain these chemicals are widely used in construction, but very little exposure and health data is available,” says Bello. 

Epoxies and isocyanates, used in construction due to their versatility and performance, are found in a vast range of materials such as steel building exteriors, interior floor and wall coatings as well as spray foams for insulation, and resins used for caulks and mortars. 

“Our goal is to identify the tasks and processes of construction associated with the highest exposures and then target the worst cases for intervention research,” says Woskie. “We want to evaluate control options to find the most effective ways for workers to avoid exposures and remain safe on the job.” 

Partnering with a number of construction contractors in the local area, the research team will monitor airborne and dermal exposures, as well as biomarkers to gauge the processes where workers will be most vulnerable. Currently, workers often perform tasks using these materials without any protection at all. Potential solutions include finding safer alternatives or using innovative engineering controls, which are more effective compared to personal protective equipment such as respirators. 

“This grant is funded at an important time for the construction industry,” says Bello. “Architects are increasingly specifying the use of these materials to enhance energy efficiency without an understanding of the impact on the workers who build their designs. We plan to partner with NIOSH, product manufacturers and other organizations to ensure that our work will contribute to a much safer future for construction workers.”