Heart disease is the leading cause of death for all adults nationwide, accounting for nearly one in every three deaths in the U.S. Cardiovascular disease can take years to develop, slowly weakening the heart muscle and allowing blockages to build up in the arteries that eventually lead to sudden cardiac events. Unfortunately, construction workers’ dual occupational hazards of physical labor and job pressures place them in one of the highest risk categories for cardiovascular injury.
Factors That Increase the Risk of Heart Conditions in Construction Workers
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), workers in the construction industry have a higher prevalence of cardiovascular disease than employees in other fields. A construction worker with heart disease is 60% more likely to retire on disability and to retire early due to health conditions than construction workers without heart disease.
Although workers in any industry can suffer a sudden heart attack, studies have shown that construction workers are at a high risk of heart conditions and sudden cardiac injury due to:
- Cigarette smoking. In 2016, the AHA reported that over 27% of construction workers are current smokers, nearly double the average total workforce smoking rate of 16%. The risk of heart and lung disease (including several forms of cancer) increases even further for smokers if they are exposed to silica, asbestos, paint fumes, and other respiratory hazards.
- Environmental conditions. Construction work demands both physical strength and endurance day after day, and the combination of heavy lifting and long hours can cause a damaged heart to give out. Workers are not only likely to suffer heart attacks due to heat stress and exertion, they are also more likely to fall from a height during a cardiac event.
- Obesity. Obesity is a major risk factor for adverse health conditions, including heart disease and strokes. The AHA study reported a 27% obesity rate among workers in the construction industry (not including those who were overweight but not obese), as well as over 22% of workers admitting they do not get any physical exercise outside of work.
- Diabetes. Roughly 7% of the entire U.S. population suffers from diabetes, a condition that often goes hand-in-hand with heart disease. Since 2006, the prevalence of diabetes among workers in construction trades has been steadily rising, particularly for workers over age 55.
- High cholesterol. High blood pressure (hypertension) and high cholesterol levels create ideal conditions for an eventual heart attack to occur. A 2005 study discovered that 41% of construction workers age 55 and older had been previously diagnosed with hypertension, and 35% of this group reported being told that they had high blood cholesterol levels. A high cholesterol count indicates that there may be a blockage in one or more arteries, while high blood pressure indicates that the heart is working overtime to pump blood throughout the body. If the artery becomes completely blocked, it can stop the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart and result in a heart attack.
- Work stress. Emotional stress, trauma, or anxiety can all lead to a sudden cardiac event, especially if a worker’s health is already in jeopardy. Construction workers may cope with a variety of stressful work situations, including overwhelming workloads due to labor shortages, unreasonable job performance expectations, unrealistic work demands, threats or intimidation from an employer, or harassment by a supervisor or coworker. Workers may struggle with anxiety or depression for years before these pressures begin to manifest physically as headaches, heart palpitations, panic attacks, dizziness, or exhaustion—and with enough time, a worker may suffer the acute chest pain and arm numbness of full cardiac arrest.
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