The indoor air quality and ventilation specialists at WTS have written this introductory guidance note to help business owners and employers understand the health implications of dust exposure in the workplace.
The guide highlights some of the most common activities that can cause dust problems at work. It outlines a number of health effects associated with exposure, and considers the need for dust risk assessments. It concludes with a review of three of the most common types of dust encountered in the workplace.
Exposure to dust in the workplace
Exposure to dust in the workplace can cause a range of health conditions from asthma through to COPD and even cancer. The main issue with dust in the workplace is that it’s not always easily detected; the particles are often too small to see, and the health effects can take years – or even decades – to develop.
Industries across many sectors experience issues with dust, from stone, cement, masonry, flour, fabrics such as wool or cotton, particles from engine emissions or asbestos. It is the job of the employer to assess the risks from dust, and take any necessary steps to deal with the problem and so keep people safe from harm.
Do you have a dust problem?
For business owners, directors and managers it can be a good first step to look at the way in which your business operates and try to identify any dust-creating activities. Some of the most common business activities which can create dust are:
- Crushing or grading materials
- Filling bags, or emptying bags of material into skips
- Diesel machinery
- Processing loose powders
- Sanding, grinding or drilling
- Cleaning and maintenance
- Cutting materials
When assessing the exposure limits for any type of dust, think also about whether it has been identified as a cancer-causing substance. When dealing with carcinogens the aim should be to keep exposure as low as possible, irrespective of the legal limits.
Breathing in particles as aerosols
Aerosol inhalation is one of the main ways in which particles get into workers’ lungs. The tern aerosol is a general term meaning any particles which are suspended in air, and can refer to fibre, liquids, dust, fumes or smoke. The size of the particle and its chemical composition determines how it affects the body when breathed in.
Dust risk assessment
There are certain commonly-found dust types which have to be considered carefully when carrying out a dust risk assessment.
RCS – Respirable crystalline silica
Silica occurs naturally in clay, sand and rocks, and is also found in concrete, bricks and some plastics. Any of these products when cut or carved in a workplace can create silica dust or respirable crystalline silica.
Silica dust can be fine enough to be breathed in deeply, and cause damage to the lungs.
Silica dust is very fine, and can only be detected under special light. Monitoring risks from silica dust must therefore incorporate a sampling technique which accounts for the fine particles.
The food industry is one of the UK’s largest employers, and up to 100,000 people are potentially exposed to flour dust each day while making pizza, bread, baked goods or other food products.
Flour is classed as a respiratory sensitiser, and this means that employers have a duty to reduce workplace exposure as much as possible.
Dust from flour can appear harmless but can cause or exacerbate lung conditions like asthma, resulting in wheezing and a feeling of tightness in the chest. Flour dust in the air can also irritate the eyes and cause watering and pain, or can irritate the nose and cause sneezing. In some cases, exposure to flour dust can cause skin issues, with dermatitis, itching and even blistering.
Workers who are sensitised to flour dust find that even very small quantities can cause an asthma attack. Their flour dust sensitivity can make working in a food production setting impossible for them.
Figures show that woodworkers — joiners and carpenters are four times more likely than the general population to have asthma, and this is all down to being exposed to wood dust.
Some dust from hardwoods is a known carcinogen, causing cancer of the nose in particular. Employers in industries where wood dust is created must have a firm handle on exposure limits, and carry out regular dust risk assessments.
All wood dust – from both hardwood and softwood sources – have a Workforce Exposure Limit (WEL) of 5mg of dust in a cubic metre of air. These limits are based on the exposure over the average working day of eight hours.
Employers should take steps to reduce the levels of wood dust in their workplace as much as possible. One of the key ways of doing this is by using mechanical dust extraction, also known as local exhaust ventilation (LEV).
Employers should ensure that their extraction system is working as it should, and have a programme for maintaining it. In the UK the law also stipulates that these LEV extraction systems must be inspected by an approved person at least every 14 months.
Keep wood dust to a minimum by never sweeping up using a traditional broom, or blowing the dust away with compressed air. Instead, get a proper industrial vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter to stop the wood dust becoming airborne.
Specialist indoor air quality solutions for workplaces
WTS offer a comprehensive range of indoor air quality testing, LEV and workplace exposure investigations to support employers, health and safety professionals, and facilities management specialists.
Our experts can provide advice and support to help you identify the most appropriate strategies for the identification, investigation and prevention of air quality issues.
With offices in London serving the South and South East England, Manchester (North West), Birmingham (Midlands), Bristol (South East England and Wales), Leeds (North and North East) and Glasgow (Scotland), supported by regional teams of specially trained engineers, air quality specialists and technicians we offer cost effective environmental support solutions across the whole of the UK and Ireland.
Contact us today to learn how our workplace management solutions can help improve the safety and performance of your ventilation systems.
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