Dust inhalation at work causes an estimated 12,000 deaths in the UK every year. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently launched its #Dustbuster campaign to raise awareness of the devastating effects of this underestimated killer.
If you work in an industry where this is part of the job – as a bricklayer, carpenter, baker or cleaner, to name just some of the roles that might be affected – it's vitally important to understand the dangers. Your employer needs to take every step possible to prevent dust exposure causing you health problems.
Who's at Risk of Dust Exposure?
Lots of industries produce some form of dust as a by-product of their work.
Workers who cut metal, stone or wood are at risk of breathing in the resulting dust, causing respiratory problems down the line. When this is repeated daily for many years, the cumulative effects can be devastating and cause lifelong health issues, and even some forms of cancer. Silica, a mineral found in construction materials as well as some types of clay and stone, can get into the lungs via the cutting, sanding or polishing of these materials. It can cause lung issues like COPD and silicosis. In terms of the damage it can lead to, it's second only to the risks of asbestos. People who work with high-risk materials like these should be aware of the dangers.
Most kinds of dusts can be hazardous if they're breathed in, swallowed or allowed direct contact with the skin. Flour dust, for example, can cause asthma, so bakers and other kitchen workers should take account of this and the relevant control measures.
Protecting Staff from Dust Exposure
Likely sources of dust exposure should be foreseen wherever possible and minimised. A risk assessment is a good place to start.
The best control measures remove the hazard entirely, perhaps by substituting the material in question for a replacement that doesn't produce the harmful dust. If that's not possible, contact between the workers and the dust should be minimised by changes to processes and equipment. For example, if dust is thrown into the air when people clean up at the end of the day, consider using a vacuum to reduce this risk.
All working areas should be well-ventilated. If personal protective equipment could help by stopping people breathing in harmful dust, this must be provided by the employer.
All employees should be well-trained in hazardous substances and any work tasks they're expected to perform, taking the hazard of dust exposure into account.