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Dust exposure - risks and personal protection technologies

24 May 2019

Dust exposure can be a major risk to the health of workers in almost any industry. Breathing in dust, such as coal dust, silica dust and other finely powdered materials, can damage the lungs and can lead to chronic lung diseases, such as coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, asbestosis, or silicosis. 

In 2016, two miners made redundant from the Thoresby Colliery mine in Nottinghamshire, UK, were diagnosed with pneumoconiosis - a long-term and irreversible lung disease caused by the inhalation of dust[1] . The mine closed in 2015 but with long latency diseases like this, there can be many years between exposure to the dust and the onset of the disease[2].

The pair, who had both worked at the mine for over 25 years, were said to have been “let down” and left “devastated” after learning they had the disease.

Workers only need to be exposed to a very small amount before it potentially becomes hazardous to health, leading to respiratory conditions that are often fatal. In accordance with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) regulations, it is mandatory for all employers to assess risk and implement measures to protect workers against dust exposure where necessary.

Dust can be more than just a nuisance, it can be a killer. There is an estimated 20,000 new case of breathing or lung problems causes or made worse by work each year[3], and 13,000 deaths linked to past exposure to chemicals or dust at work[4]. In order to control exposure and protect workers, it is important to monitor the level of exposure and ensure adequate control measures are introduced.

Recognise the dangers of dust

Coal mining was the backbone of the UK economy for decades, employing hundreds of thousands of people. It is a common misconception that problems associated with dust exposure are inapplicable because industries such as coal mining, or textile manufacturing, have diminished. Today, less than a thousand people work in coal mining jobs, however, dust is a major problem in a wide range of industries; bakeries, recycling, quarrying, and construction, where there are work processes or operations likely to generate dust[5]

Unfortunately, some employers do not recognise the dangers of dust and are reluctant to take action to prevent worker exposure to it[6]. Dust particles are very small, and fine enough to be invisible to the naked eye, however, these particulates are easily inhaled and can get deep into the lungs, causing harm. Without effective monitoring, the employer and the worker will not be aware of the harmful surrounding and the long-term damage it could be causing.

In the UK, the law requires an employer to carry out health surveillance where workers are exposed to a dust linked to a disease or illness, if it is likely that the illness is linked to exposure at work. Under the COSHH regulation, dust that has a WEL (Workplace Exposure Limit) is a ‘substance hazardous to health’[7]. Not all dust substances have a WEL, however, this does not mean this material is safe and employers should consider setting their own standards, implementing good control practice. For dust components that have their own WELs, compliance for the individual limits is required. 

Never assume that any dust is safe. Workplace monitoring assures compliance with COSHH and is a control measure that can properly assess exposure to a wide variety of hazardous substances that cause ill health. 

Personal protection at work

A personal air sampling pump is a bodily worn pump used to sample for airborne contaminants that can be damaging to health. With the ability to provide real-time data about dust levels, identifying harmful areas of exposure, personal air sampling is an effective method to mitigate risks.

Before implementing any monitoring solution, a risk assessment should be conducted to answer some key questions:
*  Who is exposed and to what?
*  How long are they exposed for?
*  How much are they exposed to?

Personal monitoring with an air sampling pump must be practical and operate in a way that it does not disrupt the comfort or productivity of a worker. Pumps can operate at a variety of different flow-rates and are designed to be clipped to the wearer’s belt. A slim, ergonomic design is the ideal solution; non-obtrusive to the wearer allowing them to carry on with their job whilst being monitored.

Personal sampling instruments highlight exactly when and where excessive dust levels are occurring to support decision-making. Personal monitoring results equip employers and employees alike with greater knowledge that can contribute to a positive workplace health programme. Consequently, personal monitoring enables a better understanding of how to protect workers from exposure through changing health and safety procedures and supplying appropriate respirable protection during dangerous tasks.

For harmful substance, crystalline silica for instance, personal monitoring is essential, and employers must employ personal dust sampling pumps in order to assess and control exposure effectively. Integrating monitoring pumps should become an established part of the health and safety process for companies. As a result, companies save valuable time while protecting employees, which enhances business efficiency.

Be vigilant and maintain a high standard of dust control

Occupational lung diseases, like silicosis and asbestosis, devastate thousands of lives every year. Educating and training workers in raising awareness about the risks of dust exposure is integral in ensuring that they understand how to prioritize and protect their health. Employers need to be vigilant, administer control methods and ensure that workers’ exposure to harmful dust is limited to as little as possible. 


1 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-nottinghamshire-35367582
2 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-nottinghamshire-35279977
3 http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/respiratory-diseases.pdf
4 http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/overall/hssh1718.pdf
5 https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/DUSTWorkplace.pdf
6 https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/DUSTWorkplace.pdf
7 http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/eh44.pdf

About the author

Tim Turney is Technical Product Manager at Casella and graduated as an engineer from Queen Mary and Westfield in London. Since starting at dust, noise and vibration monitoring specialist Casella in 1998, Tim has been involved in the acoustics and air sampling industry, specialising in measurement and instrumentation technologies.


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