Poor oral health can lead to periodontal disease, tooth loss, nutritional deficiencies and an overall degradation in a person's quality of life. Taking care of the mouth is important for everyone — however, in practice, not everyone's oral health is up to par.
Construction workers have a higher likelihood of cavities, dental injury, and dental disease. That may be due to certain workplace factors that contribute to oral wellness, according to research from Industrial Health, a journal published by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
As union leaders, it's helpful to understand the oral health risks construction workers face so that you can better educate your members and keep them healthy.
Teeth Grinding and Jaw Pain
The Journal of Health and Sport reports that symptoms of occupational bruxism (the medical term for grinding teeth) include frequent clenching, pain while chewing and worn tooth surfaces. As construction workers often use vibrating equipment and machinery such as jackhammers, they may be more prone to clenching and grinding their teeth. Stress on the job, particularly among managerial-level workers, could also contribute to workplace-related bruxism.
Dehydration can decrease the mouth's production of saliva. According to Colgate, that may cause problems, since saliva is necessary for healthy gums and teeth. Members who don't drink enough water may also not get enough fluoride, which strengthens teeth and wards off cavities.
Construction workers who work outdoors might not be getting enough water, especially during the summer. That can affect more than their oral health — according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, when temperatures rise above 103 degrees Fahrenheit, workers are more prone to dehydration as well as heat-related illnesses (although dehydration and heatstroke can set in well below this temperature).
Encourage members working on outdoor construction sites during the warmer months to take water breaks every 15 to 20 minutes. They should also stay in the shade whenever possible and wear loose-fitting clothing.
Smoking and Drinking
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking weakens both lung health and the immune system. In turn, it's much harder for diseased gums to heal. The Royal College of Surgeons reports that heavy drinking can also promote a host of oral issues, such as mouth sores, tooth erosion and gum disease.
Research from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services shows that the construction industry has higher-than-average rates of smoking and alcohol consumption. Construction consistently ranks high even among other industries with high rates of smokers, listed behind only mining.
Social Determinants of Health
Poor oral health for construction workers is often connected to factors off of the worksite. Blue-collar workers may have limited access to nutritious food, health care and homes in areas with high air pollution. All can contribute to gum disease and other dental issues.
Union leaders can do their part to advocate for oral health and helping members — particularly those in construction — avoid poor oral hygiene. For example, consider hosting an oral hygiene expert for a webinar to raise awareness, or cover the topic in a rotating health column in your organization's email or newsletter. Send regular reminders to members about their dental benefits to give members not confident in their coverage the push they need to see a dentist.
Providing education, advocacy and resources will help members stay productive, healthy and smiling — on and off the job.
Jackie Lam is a personal finance writer who has written for both Fortune 500 companies and fintech startups. In a former life, she worked in the communications department of an entertainment labor union. Now a full-time freelancer, she enjoys helping fellow freelancers build a successful business.