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Dealing with dust: how to eliminate harmful particles in workplace facilities

Author : Anh-Tai Vuong, President, DuroVac

09 December 2019

Earlier this year, the head of the National Coal Miners’ Union called for urgent action to be taken in the regulation of silica dust in mines, which has been linked to a resurgence of potentially fatal black lung disease.

This type of occupational hazard accounts for more than one in 10 cases of lung diseases not related to cancer – with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and several airway infections all tied to long-term workplace dust exposure.

While the responsibility lies with the government to increase regulations businesses play a vital part in protecting employees’ health and safety. 

Understanding the danger

There are many harmful dust particles found in workplaces, including mineral dust such as silica, organic dust like wood and flour and mineral fibres such as asbestos.

Larger dust particles tend to become blocked in the nose or mouth when inhaled, which can be unpleasant for workers, but it’s the smaller, fine dust particles that pose the most serious health risks. Prolonged exposure to fine dust particles can see them become lodged in the lungs and even get absorbed in the bloodstream.

Silica exposure remains a serious threat to nearly 2 million U.S. workers, including more than 100,000 workers in high-risk jobs such as abrasive blasting, foundry work, stonecutting, rock drilling, quarry work and tunnelling.

Crystalline silica has been classified as a human lung carcinogen. Additionally, breathing crystalline silica dust can cause silicosis, which in severe cases can be disabling, or even fatal.

Other industries where employees are most at risk of severe health issues include the construction and fire rescue services, which are most likely to be exposed to asbestos. 

Those working in baked goods facilities or food manufacturing are at an increased risk of exposure to lung damage from flour inhalation, which is a respiratory sensitizer and known to cause allergic rhinitis and occupational asthma.

Wood dust from carpentry is also associated with toxic effects, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, dermatitis, and respiratory system effects that include decreased lung capacity and allergic reactions.

How to identify particles in the workplace

Responsible companies must clearly outline their safety policies and introduce processes for safely managing materials to eliminate health risks to workers.

Many businesses that work with chemicals or other potentially harmful materials should use safety data sheets to outline the exact risks to employees, plus internal protocols for dealing with hazards.

If preparing your safety data sheets internally, make sure they address each particular hazardous material, providing a comprehensive overview of the potential risks, preventative measures workers can take to avoid injury, details on how to handle and store the materials plus additional information such as first aid measures and the material’s chemical structure.

However, it’s not enough to simply alert employees to potential safety hazards, they must know how to effectively handle safety procedures, too.

Employers should run employee workshops to cover every possible risk posed by different materials they might be exposed to in the workplace. This includes details on possible symptoms of inhalation, skin irritation and clear steps on how to proceed. 

Health and safety training should also include general practices such as first aid and fire evacuation processes.

The best way to ensure buy-in from employees is to order inspections at all stages of the process. This may mean running practice drills for each possible hazard and assessing how employees perform.

Minimal exposure

In some industries, the presence of certain ultrafine particles is unavoidable. Those working with materials such as wood or food items simply can’t completely avoid traces of dust. In these cases, it is the employer’s responsibility to provide ample precautions to minimise the risk of harm.

Employers are legally required to provide staff with personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect them against any viable workplace hazards.

Anyone working in contact with, or in the same environment as, potentially harmful substances are required to take the precautions with protective equipment. For those working with dust, this could include hand protection like gloves and barrier creams, skin protection such as long-sleeved clothing, eye protection like goggles and visors and respiratory protection like half or full-face coverings and even masks.

Diligent employers will also fit the workplace with appropriate equipment to monitor levels of substances in the air. Dust measuring devices can be used to track indoor air quality and monitor for airborne particles of a certain size.

Certain types of dust won’t pose a threat in moderate levels but may become dangerous when concentration levels in the air reach level. Precautions such as air monitors ensure staff are never exposed to dangerous levels of airborne dust.

Anh-Tai Vuong, President, DuroVac
Anh-Tai Vuong, President, DuroVac

The elimination game

Where dust becomes highly concentrated, it’s important the building or plant is cleaned to reduce and remove harmful particles as much as possible. The first step is to enclose the contaminated area to prevent particles from spreading and more employees becoming affected.

Local exhaust ventilation (LEV) helps extract airborne dust and fumes before they can be inhaled. Even in areas where dust cannot be eliminated, fitting a diffusion ventilator helps disperse particles evenly to avoid dangerously concentrated areas.

Industrial vacuums are ideal for warehouses and larger spaces, providing complete coverage to remove even the finest of dust particles. Vacuums with built-in HEPA filters are recommended, as these trap the dust inside the mechanism, preventing any particles escaping back into the atmosphere.

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About Anh-Tai Vuong

Anh-Tai Vuong is president, corporate sales and business development, at DuroVac, a manufacturer of industrial vacuums designed for rugged applications. With a Bachelor of Engineering from McGill University, Vuong has worked in industrial sales his entire professional life. He specialises in aluminium smelters (primary metals), potash and fertilisers (mining), steel mills and foundries (primary metals) and combustible dust.

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