Dust kills: how to reduce the risk to your workers

Wednesday July 27, 2022

Last month, the HSE ran a month-long campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of dust in the construction industry. It carried out site inspections with a special focus on dust control, making sure that workers understood the risks, and that employers had the correct safety measures in place. This comes just two months after a similar campaign aimed at woodworkers.

Here’s a quick guide to the dangers of dust, and what you can do to reduce the risk.

How dangerous is dust?

While breathing in dust particles is unlikely to cause immediate injury, the long-term effects can be very serious. Last year, 12,000 workers died from occupational lung disease, with many of these conditions linked to dust exposure.

Dust inhalation can trigger a number of illnesses. These include asthma, bronchitis and lung cancer. Contact with dust can also irritate the skin and eyes, while swallowing dust can cause stomach complaints.

What are the most dangerous types of dust?

It’s not healthy to be around any kind of dust for a long time, but some types are especially dangerous.

The best known is probably asbestos. Despite being banned in 1999, asbestos is still present in many old buildings. Disturbing it releases a highly toxic dust which is extremely hazardous if inhaled.

Asbestos fibres can become trapped in the lungs, leading to a form of cancer called mesothelioma and a chronic lung disease called asbestosis. Together, these conditions cause over 5,000 deaths a year.

The dangers of asbestos are well understood, but other types of dust can be equally hazardous:

  • Silica dust is found in construction materials such as stone, sand, gravel and clay. Inhaling it can lead to a serious lung condition called silicosis which causes the lungs to stiffen irreversibly. Silica dust is also a major cause of lung cancer and kidney disease. An estimated 1,000 workers a year die from silica dust exposure.
  • Coal dust and cotton dust can both cause a condition called pneumoconiosis. This is an irreversible scarring of the lungs that can lead to long-term breathing difficulties.

Who is most at risk?

Many workers will encounter dust occasionally, but the highest risk is to those who are regularly exposed. These people include:

  • Construction workers
  • Oil and gas workers
  • Foundry workers
  • Woodworkers
  • Textile workers
  • Firefighters

What are my responsibilities?

There are two main pieces of legislation covering dust exposure:

  • The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 makes it the responsibility of all employers to ensure that employees are not exposed to unnecessary risks.
  • The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) 2002 Regulations require employers to protect workers from exposure to harmful substances.

Dust is covered by COSHH if its concentration in the air reaches a certain threshold. For inhalable dust, this is 10mg/m3. For respirable dust, this is 4mg/m3. An inhalable dust is any dust that can be breathed in, while a respirable dust is one that contains particles small enough to penetrate the lungs.

What can I do to protect my employees?

COSHH provides a framework for minimising exposure to hazardous substances. Steps you can take include:

  • Adjusting your activities to minimise the release and spread of dust.
  • Developing control measures that take into account all types of exposure, including skin absorption and ingestion.
  • Providing adequate PPE in situations where dust exposure cannot be eliminated completely.
  • Reviewing your control measures regularly, and updating them if there are any significant changes to working patterns.
  • Providing adequate training for employees, and encouraging them to raise any concerns about dust exposure.

All of this should be underpinned by a solid risk assessment created in collaboration with your employees. It’s important to make sure that workers understand the risks, and the precautions they need to take to minimise exposure. It’s a good idea to provide regular refresher training on this topic, especially if new employees enter the workplace.

To book a training session, or for any advice on managing workplace hazards, don’t hesitate to give us a call.

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