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Alternative building materials – what are the health and safety implications?
Posted by David Cant on May 21, 2015

Alternative building materials – what are the health and safety implications?

Building materialsThe drive to build more eco-friendly homes and offices is forcing many construction firms to consider the use of alternative materials. Moving away from traditional bricks and cement means that these firms will need to reassess their health and safety provisions for protecting employees working with these new materials.

Here are some tips for dealing with three of these “new” materials that are starting to gain in popularity.


The high tensile strength of fiberglass has made it a popular material for use in cars, boats and aircraft for some time. Falling production costs along with advances in how the material is worked, means that fiberglass is now being used for building extremely strong homes.

Two layers of fiberglass enclose insulating foam to create a Structural Insulated Panel (SIP) that is then used to build a wall. SIPs cost around 10% more than a traditional framed building, but they only take a matter of hours to assemble on site.


SIPs are fabricated offsite, helping to minimise the health risks posed by fiberglass to construction workers. In the unlikely event that a SIP needs adjustment, employees need to be aware that inhaling the silica fibres which make up the fibreglass shells can cause irritation to skin, eyes and lungs.

Fiberglass is also known to release styrene, a chemical that is suspected of possibly causing cancer after prolonged exposure. Other short-term side-effects of styrene exposure include tiredness, balance problems and irritation of breathing passages and skin.

With this in mind, prolonged exposure to fiberglass dust and silica fibres will require ventilation and/or breathing apparatus to protect employees.

Hemp concrete

Similar to traditional concrete, but made from more environmentally-friendly materials, hemp concrete is finding favour with some green homeowners. Combining hemp fibres with powdered limestone and water, hemp concrete is considered by many to be more durable than traditional concrete. The potential applications remain the same however.


The organic content of hemp concrete is perfectly harmless, presenting no hazards for your workforce. Powdered limestone is also relatively risk-free, particularly once dampened and mixed.

As with other dust-like substances, limestone does offer some risk when inhaled. Irritation of eyes, nose, throat and lungs are not uncommon once limestone dust enters the airways – fortunately there are no secondary problems as with other substances like asbestos.

Firms involved in quarrying or processing limestone, or mixing large quantities of hemp cement will need to ensure that such activities take place in properly ventilated workspaces, and that employees are supplied with appropriate PPE equipment if necessary.


Commonly used on sites already for waste water pipes and guttering, PVC is increasingly being used to provide long-lasting, waterproof cladding for new builds. Lightweight and strong, PVC is not yet used for structural building, but this may always change in the future.


PVC contains chlorine which is released as dioxins during manufacture, burning or disposal. As employees cut, melt or shape PVC, this chlorine is released and can be breathed in.

Exposure to large amounts of chlorine has been found to cause problems with reproduction and development, whilst phthalates and BPA (another constituent component) are known to cause hormonal disruption. Fortunately these dangers are unlikely to be encountered during standard handling and fitting.

As with any project, your business simply needs to assess the risks posed to employees – particularly where they are cutting or shaping PVC – and provide ventilation/PPE where appropriate.

So over to you – what additional considerations do you need to make to deal with “alternative” building materials and any risks they pose?

Related Article – Building Design Hazards to Avoid


Director at Veritas Consulting. 20+ years as a Chartered Safety and Health Practitioner with a brain you can pick. A trusted, risk savvy portfolio professional who is fluent in practical advice and an effective workplace solutionist.

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