Hazards in the construction industry take many forms. Safety education often focuses on sudden, catastrophic accidents – such as falls, explosions, trench collapses and vehicle accidents. However, another category of injuries takes place over time. Long-term damage to the body is common in construction work. Because these injuries don’t arise from a single tragic event, but rather develop slowly over years or decades of work, they’re more likely to go overlooked. Nonetheless, they can have a big impact on sufferers’ lives.

The following are among the most prominent long-term injuries.

Back pain

According to The Center for Construction Research and Training, roughly 1 in 3 construction workers experiences chronic pain stemming from musculoskeletal damage. The most common area affected, by far, is the back. Back injuries are more prevalent among construction workers than employees in all other industries combined.

By nature, construction work involves physical labor that can easily result in back problems from repeated:

  • Lifting
  • Pushing and pulling
  • Bending

The shoulders, knees, ankles and feet may also be affected.

Proper training – as well as access to the right tools and equipment – is critical for reducing the risk of back injuries.

Repetitive stress injuries

These types of musculoskeletal injuries stem from repeated motions (or prolonged use of certain hand tools) over months or years. Delicate soft tissues such as ligaments and tendons eventually start to break down, causing pain, limited mobility and nerve damage. The most common include:

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Tendonitis
  • Hand-arm vibration syndrome

As with back injuries, prevention often comes down to using the right ergonomic techniques and equipment, taking frequent breaks, and seeking treatment early on – before the tissue damage becomes extensive.

Hearing loss

Construction work takes place in noisy environments. Despite safety regulations requiring hearing protection, a staggering 50 percent of construction workers experience some degree of permanent hearing loss.

Toxic exposure

Exposure to chemicals, dust and other toxins on the job can lead to long-term health consequences. Lung cancer, for example, affects construction workers at a 50-percent higher rate than the general public.

The biggest dangers include:

  • Lead poisoning: Elevated lead levels in the blood can cause organ damage, infertility, miscarriage and birth defects.
  • Manganese: Prolonged exposure above recommended limits can cause permanent neurological damage.
  • Methylene chloride: Commonly found in paint thinners and solvents, this toxin can cause cancer, brain damage, heart problems and infertility.
  • Carbon monoxide: Chronic, low-level exposure can lead to confusion, fatigue, dizziness and cognitive problems. Acute exposure at high levels can be fatal in a matter of minutes.

While strict regulations exist for curbing exposure to toxic substances, employers and site managers don’t always adhere to those standards. Shortcomings in safety equipment, labeling, hazard communication and ventilation can all lead to unsafe levels of exposure.