Dust and allergen particles are everywhere in nature and in our communities. Although dust is naturally occurring, we need to control dust created in the workplace. Dust created in the workplace can present unique hazards and environmental conditions for employees. To prevent illnesses, employers should assess dusty environments in accordance with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH).
What are the Hazards?
Dust in the workplace can be created by several sources. Job tasks such as bag filling, grinding, crushing, sanding, and other industrial activities can transform large solid items into small, hazardous dust particles. Some dusty environments can create flammable or explosive atmospheres if static electricity is introduced(e.g desktop computers). And others can create harmful health effects if personnel are exposed, where dust has been untouched for many months or years
Excessive amounts of dust can cause respiratory issues. Inhalation is the most common route of entry for hazardous substances. “Total Inhalable Dust” can enter the airway through the nose and mouth. These larger particles of dust can get trapped in the airway and upper respiratory tract causing irritation and other damage. “Respirable Dust” are usually smaller particles of dust that can travel further into the respiratory system and cause build up in the lungs. This build-up can cause lung damage such as inflammation, fibrosis (scar tissue), and even breathing impairments.
Why is Dust so Hazardous?
Dusty conditions are hazardous because they are often just viewed as a nuisance. The health complications that can occur over time are ignored because there may not be an immediate side effect. Several health conditions and illnesses that are caused by dust exposure occur due to repeated exposure over time. Symptoms may include difficulty breathing, coughing, wheezing, asthma, lung disease, and lung cancer. In addition, many of the symptoms due to repeated dust exposure can be confused with life changes, such as smoking, allergies and ageing.
Dust created in the workplace will need to be evaluated to see if it meets the definition of a “substance hazardous to health” as defined by COSHH. Dust will generally meet this definition if it is toxic, harmful or an irritant OR if a workplace exposure limit (WEL) applies.
Once dust is determined as hazardous, the workplace will need to be assessed for risk AND prevention methods will need to be implemented to prevent exposure.
There are several different methods of prevention. The five basic methods include elimination, substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protection equipment.
The first method to utilize is to try and eliminate the source of exposure. Remove the product or item creating the dust from the process. However, this is not always possible, so try to evaluate substitution methods by looking for products that are less harmful to use instead.
If elimination or substitution are not an option, then you must control the dust. Implementing engineering controls can be very effective and can provide a physical barrier between the employee and the hazardous dust. This may include ventilation systems, changing the process to create less dust, or enclosing this process area to prevent the spread of dust. Dust collection systems may also be installed to reduce the dust buildup.
Administrative controls are more procedural based and can include policies, procedures, and training methods. Administrative control could be to reduce the number of employees in the exposed area. Or, to combine a procedure on the collection of dust with an engineering method such as a when to activate a ventilation fan.
Another option would be to have a systematic cleaning regime to include a deep clean (spring clean)
Get computer hard drives cleaned professionally, using dust extraction methods
Personal protection equipment (PPE) is always the last form of control. This method of prevention should be combined with administrative controls on procedure and training, i.e. how to properly wear PPE. The type of PPE needed will depend on the environment. Respirators may need to be worn and implemented with a strong respirator program. When considering PPE as a method of control, be aware that a medical surveillance program will likely be needed.
No matter what method you choose to control the dust, the important thing is to prevent exposure and to ensure a safe workplace. When determining prevention methods, it is a great idea to get employees involved. Being in the environment and around the process, they can have great ideas on improving the process and creating a safer environment.