How to Protect Construction Crews from the Impacts of Radiation

September 17, 2019 | Dawn Walters

Truthfully, there’s no escaping radiation risk. Radioactive elements are everywhere: in the atmosphere, water, food, soil and living organisms. But these elements become of a major safety concern when managing construction of certain medical, academic, industrial and nuclear facilities, among others. In these facilities, radiation may be served up in doses high enough to be dangerous—or deadly.

The type of radiation and amount of exposure impacts the risk of health complications due to damage to the DNA in the cells of living things. So, to protect yourself, and your construction crew, it’s important to understand what radiation is and when to be on alert.

Defining Radiation

Radiation is the spontaneous emissions of fragments of energy from unstable nucleus creating more nuclei. And it’s something we all deal with on a daily basis.

The sun’s heat energy is the best-known source of radiation, ranging from infrared to ultraviolet. We depend on the sun for light, heat and vitamin D. But we’re also aware that too much exposure can lead to negative effects, including skin cancer, cataracts and immune suppression to name a few.

There are two types of radiation, non-ionizing and ionizing. Ionization occurs when radiation has so much energy it knocks electrons out of atoms. This can affect the atoms in living things, damaging tissue and DNA in genes.

  • Non-ionizing radiation does not have enough energy to ionize atoms. However, without safety precautions, it can still cause serious health issues. Examples include microwaves, radio waves, radar, cellphones, infrared and even visible light.

  • Ionizing radiation has higher energy forms and can cause dangerous ionization. The effects of ionizing radiation at high enough power can lead to radiation poisoning or death. Overexposure to ionizing radiation can cause mutations in your genes, causing birth defects, increased risk of cancer, burns, or radiation sickness. Examples include natural radiation such as Alpha and Beta particles, cosmic rays, gamma rays and even electrons and protons, as well as manmade forms like X-rays.

Radiation Risk Safety

Radiation can have its own unique sensations. Over the years, individuals working in areas with significant amounts of radiation exposure or radioactive contamination have reported that they experienced a metallic taste in the mouth or smelled ozone in the air. Proactive radiation safety should prevent that exposure. In fact, having a culture of radiation safety, awareness and training can save lives.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Title 10, Code of Federal Regulations (10 CFR 20), states that anyone impacted by a radiation protection program should implement ALARA requirements.

Practicing ALARA, or “As Low As Reasonably Achievable,” means one has the awareness for basic radiation protection and exposure awareness.

The three principles of ALARA are:

  • Time: Keep exposure to a minimum.

  • Distance: This is the best source of protection from radiation.

  • Shielding: Use an appropriate protective barrier. These might include safety gear such as masks, gloves or lead-lined aprons.

Consider these additional tips to increase your radiation awareness:

  1. If you have a concern about your surroundings, ask
    about potential hazards and risks. These might include

  2. medical or industrial devices, nuclear-powered testing,
    environmental issues, radioactive materials or medicines.
  3. If in a controlled supervised setting, ask about radiation
    emergency instructions and procedures. For example,
    consider asking: Is there a Radiation Safety Officer?
    What are the safety procedures?

  4. Get to know caution and danger signage, such as the one
    featured at the right.

  5. If you wear a radiation dosimeter or have received radiation related treatment, ask how to obtain your absorbed dose limits and exposure levels.

  6. Read about Radiation and how it’s regulated with these sources. Excellent sources include the Nuclear Regulation Commission, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health Radiation Protection Division.

Ensuring that construction projects in sensitive locations run smoothly and safely, particularly when dealing with radioactive materials, may seem daunting at first. But you don’t have to manage it alone. If your agency needs guidance on improving safety practices or would like on-site experts to lead that process, contact AFG’s Director of Advisory Services, Dr. Bill Bersing, DM, PE, CCM, at

About the Authors

Dawn Walters, , is the Radiation Safety Officer for the National Institute of Standards of Technology’s (NIST) $350M Building 245 Radiation Physics Modernization Project at their 574-acre campus in Maryland. In her time as the Deputy Director and Radiation Safety Officer at the #1 ranked hospital in the Washington Metro area – Georgetown University Hospital, Ms. Walters was been responsible for maintaining Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and DC Dept. of Health (DC DOH) safety and radiation safety guidelines during construction and renovations. Recently, she served as the executive liaison to government organizations including the NRC, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and DC Department of Health.

About AFG Group, Inc.

AFG Group, Inc. is a woman-­owned firm focused on multi-­disciplined program, construction, and relocation management, with a national portfolio of work in healthcare, laboratories, courthouses, educational facilities, and government buildings. With 30 years of business acumen, AFG has earned a reputation for providing strong expertise, responsiveness, and project execution that helps owners navigate through complex design, procurement, construction, and activation processes.