Get whiff of this?

Australia and the western world in general have come a long way in how we ensure construction sites are so much safer now to a decade ago. Turn up to a building site and fluoro vests, safety glasses and steel capped shoes are a given, even New Balance, Reebok and Nike are getting into the action of providing steel caps for building sites to make sure tradies look gooood! So while all the attention is given to the immediate protection of our toes, eyes, ears and to ensure we can be seen, there could be a guy on site with a paint roller using something that may glow in the dark slowly killing himself, and those around him, and for some reason we’re either oblivious to it or just don’t care.

Solvents, isocyanates, xylene, toluene, monochlorobenzene, phthalates, naphthalene diisocyanate the list could go on and on……..What are they? Some of this stuff would put wrinkles on a bowling ball yet these common hazardous chemicals are present on building sites and used by some tradies that not only endanger the applicator and surrounding workers, but the toxins and hazards from these chemicals hang around and linger, often emitting into the finished environment for the new occupier. Next time you take a close look at the tiles, painted walls, vinyl, carpets or timber floors in your home or workplace, you may want to have a think about what may be under that layer as its likely there could be a cocktail of chemicals slowly seeping through hanging around where we spend a big part of our lives. I’m not going to write about Sick Building Syndrome, you can look it up as there has been lots taken up on this but while so much focus today is on safe work environments to ensure everyone goes home with 10 fingers and 10 toes along with their head attached to their shoulders our construction industry is priming itself for future ramifications in contributing to potentially serious health issues and actions from both workers and occupants in the built environment.

Take 2 minutes to watch this You Tube clip on Isocyanate Exposure and you’ll get a better understanding of where I’m heading next

I’m a manufacturer of protective coatings and waterproofing systems, the types of products that are used in every type of building. People that know me and my companies know our position against solvents and hazardous coatings so this may come across as a bash against the nasty hazardous isocyanate products out there. I understand there are products that provide a practical effective function that alternatives of a safer non-hazardous nature can’t offer, however this is becoming lessor of a challenge now with the technical developments of non-hazardous compounds and innovative alternatives so this reasoning is wearing thin(ner).

After you see that You Tube clip with the 2 guys applying that isocyanate based product, that unfortunately is the reality of what you’ll see on numerous building sites around the country every day. I was on a Sydney site a few months ago and smelt my way to the bathrooms where 2 guys were waterproofing the wet areas with a solvent based polyurethane membrane with no chemical resistant gloves or respirators in sight. I lasted all of 20 seconds before I evacuated this 3m x 2m bathroom which was anything but a ventilated area. Now when I tried talking to these applicators about what they were using it was evident they were oblivious to the risks and didn’t give a crap to what they were using, as by the time morning smoko came around I figured their stained polyurethane fingers were adding more than a few calories and extra flavour to that Four’NTwenty pie that was disappearing into their mouths. If you want to take the Homer Simpson approach to your health, then good luck but on this same residential building site were 4 other tradies, some of which were in rooms next door or down stairs. I was on the site for 20 minutes maximum as I could sense my tongue numbing and a headache coming on, which unfortunately is a common effect after I get near isocyanates and I have little tolerance to this, both voluntary and involuntary. The guys applying the product have either been ill informed, or never informed, on the hazards of these products they were using as surely they couldn’t be applying this daily in these kinds of areas and not noticing how this is impacting them. But what about the other tradies, workers and visitors on site, exposed to these fumes and hazardous chemicals in the air they are breathing. Have they become accustomed to it and also unaware of the health dangers of being exposed to the free chemical cocktail issued on site? This is one example of one application of what happens on site, but on any day of the week take a visit around the country to other building sites (both large and small) and hone into where the chemical hazards exist and what workers might be exposed to. I think you’ll be unpleasantly surprised.

Globally there is a big push for green building methods – bravo! With this we’re hearing how big chemical companies are telling us what is no longer in a product but reports are now showing that some chemicals replacing these hazardous VOCs (Volatile Organic Content) are even more toxic, they just don’t show up as being volatile at room temperature. Conspiracy Theory or are we waiting for a whistle blower to come forward? The jury is out on that one for the present time but the general consensus on Green building is that it also should represent safe building, as while we put measures in place to ensure the planet doesn’t overheat and shrivel, I’d like to think extending the quality of human life is a primary focus for all industry and governments.

That being the objective, if the construction industry is genuine about being a safe working environment then the ostrich view of the situation needs to stop and time to come up and smell the chemicals. If passive smoking is killing 600,000 Australians per year, it may be time for someone to do the math and check out how many Australians on building sites plus occupants of homes and buildings are exposed to some of this toxic stuff. Even if only a percentage of passive smoking causalities, that is enough of a trigger to direct some attention to this.

We may just start to realise a safe construction site will take more than a fluorescent vest, safety glasses and the latest pair of Nike steel cap shoes.