Occupational Hygiene Blog

Dust in the workplace is more than a nuisance, it can be a killer.

In many workplaces dust is a major problem. However dust can be more than just a nuisance – it can be a killer. This guidance is intended to outline the problems that can be caused by dust and give advice on what employers should do to protect workers.

Dust is simply small particles in the air. Often these particles are too small to be seen but, because they are airborne, they can be breathed in through the nose and mouth.

It is the size and chemical nature of the dust particles that determine the effect they have on the body. Larger sized particles are called inhalable dust. Most of this will be filtered out in the nose and throat. Smaller size dust (called thoracic dust) can reach the lungs. If the dust is small enough it can be inhaled deeply. This is called respirable dust. Very small particles can pass through the lungs into other organs of the body. Smaller particles also stay in the air for much longer so can be a danger for a longer period of time.

Usually the smaller particles are the most hazardous but inhalable dust can also cause major health problems. A lot of dust however contains particles of different sizes and may be a mixture of inhalable and respirable.

Dust can be caused by a huge number of processes and comes in many different forms. It is divided into two types - organic and inorganic.

Inorganic dusts come from stones, chemicals and metals. Among the inorganic dusts that workers encounter are cement, coal, asbestos, metal, concrete, talc, stone, grout and sand. Organic dusts come from living things and include dust from textiles, wood, poultry, leather, grain and flour. These often also contain fungal spores and microbes. Dusts can also come from organic chemicals such as pesticides and dyes.

The two most serious health problems caused by dust are cancers of the lungs, throat and nose, and other lung conditions called Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

However these are not the only cancer and COPDs that dust can cause. Many dusts also cause asthma and other allergies, rhinitis and even heart disease. Many can also be an explosive hazard if they are allowed to build up. Some of the diseases caused by dust take decades to develop and once symptoms appear it is too late. Often the worker will have left the workplace by the time they develop a cancer or COPD, especially in industries with a high turnover like construction.

Unfortunately many employers do not recognise the dangers of dust, and so do not take any action to prevent exposure to it. This is particularly a problem where the dust particles are too small to be seen. This is the kind of dust that is usually most dangerous because it can get deep into the lungs, but often the employer and the workers will not be aware that it is there unless they are monitoring the air.

The HSE has produced a lot of good material about the dangers of dust, both generally and for specific industries. It has also developed practical guidance for employers on how to use COSHH called COSHH Essentials.

The best protection that workers can have is a strong union that ensures that they are protected. Union safety reps should:

• check that risk assessments include the dangers of dust and that the employer has proper procedures in place to control it.

• ensure that all parts of the workplace are regularly monitored for levels of workplace exposure to both general dust and any specific types of dust that may have lower WELs.

• search the HSE website for any specific advice on your sector.

• if the level of dust is above the limits for inhalable and respirable dust of 10 mg/m³ and 4 mg/m³ then the employer has a legal responsibility to take action.

• make sure that your members are aware of the possible dangers from dust. This can be done jointly with the employer if they agree.

• if there may be a dust problem, is the health of your members being checked? Do you have access to the health reports?

• check that the employer is following the order of priorities by trying to prevent and control the hazard before using PPE?

• health and safety representatives should be involved in the choice of PPE such as breathing masks and should ensure it is suitable for all workers.

• make sure any PPE is properly maintained.

Often people think the problems of dust have long gone as most of the exposure was from industries that have disappeared such as coal mining and textile manufacturing. This is not the case. There are still huge problems with dust in a wide range of workplaces including bakeries, quarrying, agriculture and construction. In some sectors the problem is getting worse. Stay protected and work with your employers to ensure a healthy workplace.

Extract taken from TUC 'Dust in the Workplace' (Guidance for Health & Safety Reps)

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