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Dealing with Dust in the Workplace

Learn how to manage dust exposure in the workplace and create a hazard-free environment for employees

Anh-Tai Vuong
Written By Anh-Tai Vuong President of DuroVac
Man in Grey Shirt talking with group of people who are holding yellow hard hats
Dec 2019
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Article originally published on EHSToday
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Earlier this year, the head of the United Mineworkers of America called for changes to the regulation of silica dust in mines, demanding stricter standards for working conditions. The particles have been linked to a recent rise in potentially fatal black lung disease in those spending long periods working in coal mines.

It’s just one example of occupational dust hazards causing health problems for workers, including those in construction, shingle manufacturing and glass production roles, which employers have a responsibility to address.

This article outlines the steps businesses can take to manage dust exposure in the workplace and create a healthy and hazard-free environment for employees.

Understanding the Risks

Workplace dust is unavoidable in many occupations, but in high concentrations it can go from being an irritant to a real health risk. Mineral dust such as silica, organic dust like wood and flour, and mineral fibers like asbestos all are commonly found in workplaces and can be dangerous when inhaled in high concentrations.

While larger dust particles may seem like a health risk, it’s actually finer dust that’s the most dangerous. Larger particles tend to get blocked by our nose hairs or the hair-like cilia cells and mucus lining in our airways, stopping them from getting to the lungs. Smaller particles evade our bodies’ natural defenses and become absorbed in the bloodstream or trapped in the lungs.

Although our bodies have certain white blood cells that bind to and destroy dust particles in the lungs, long-term exposure to high concentrations of dust can still harm our health.

Those exposed to dusty environments are at a greater risk of developing respiratory illnesses, which can impact their quality of life and can even be fatal. Employees performing tasks such as abrasive blasting, foundry work, stonecutting, drilling and quarry work are at risk of silica particle inhalation from the dust produced by their work.

Other workers at risk include those in fire rescue services, where asbestos inhalation is a hazard which can lead to symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing and fatigue, plus long-term risks like developing lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Working in catering roles where flour dust is airborne also poses risks to employees. Breathing in flour dust particles can produce irritating symptoms like a runny nose and watery eyes, persistent sneezing and coughing and shortness of breath. Long-term, bakers can even develop occupational asthma, which causes typical asthmatic symptoms like chest tightness, shortness of breath and coughing.

Woodworkers, who are exposed to fine wood dust particles from sawing, cutting and sanding are at risk of inhaling the dust, which can cause breathing problems, irritation of the nose and throat, and dermatitis.

Making a Change

It’s not enough for employers to just recognize the dangers their work presents to employees. Actions must be taken to create a clear safety policy and actively remove the risks.

The first step is creating safety data sheets for each hazardous material, which outlines the material type, the risks it poses and detailed guidance on how to avoid the hazard and remove it if it becomes a present threat.

Include as much detail as possible about each material to give employees the strongest chance of avoiding irritation and dealing with the substance safely and effectively. This may include information about its chemical structure, preventative measures employees can take to avoid injury and details on how to handle the material.

Also, include general safety advice and best practice tips for dealing with materials in the workplace and precautionary advice such as fire evacuation procedures specific to your building or warehouse.

Be transparent with staff about any health and safety changes or updates, and keep regular communication with any key messaging around harmful substances.

Protect Yourself

For many workers, completely avoiding dust isn’t an option. However, all businesses can take steps to minimize the risk of harm to employees.

For example, employers are required by law to provide employees with personal protective equipment (PPE) relevant to their given workplace hazards.

For those in environments with high concentrations of fine dust particles, standard PPE should include gloves, barrier creams and other skin protection like long-sleeved clothing to avoid irritation. It’s also important to protect employees’ eyes with goggles and visors and provide face coverings and masks to protect the respiratory system.

While PPE provides coverage against everyday dust in the workplace, it’s up to employers to monitor the concentration of airborne dust and react with preventative measures when concentrations become dangerously high.

In warehouses and other workplaces with high concentrations of dust, dust measuring devices can be installed to track the size and concentration of airborne particles and alert users when levels become dangerously high, allowing you to begin safely evacuating employees.

Equipping Staff

In addition to providing PPE, employers can equip employees with the knowledge to manage hazards in the workplace. Health and safety training should be a staple in any workplace that poses possible health risks.

Regular training from a dedicated health and safety professional or external workplace safety expert is invaluable in helping employees implement simple changes to make the workplace safer and more hygienic.

Be transparent with employees about your expectations when it comes to following internal health and safety policies, and when rolling out a new safety procedure or introducing new materials to the workplace, you may want to run a practice drill and observe employee behavior.

Provide employees with regular feedback on their form and let them know how they can improve the way they perform health and safety tasks, to help nurture a safe workforce.

Getting buy-in from employees can be a challenge, as you’re likely adding tasks to an already busy schedule. Make sure to communicate the benefits of maintaining health and safety standards and consider offering rewards for employees who take on extra training or demonstrate they’re following company procedures correctly.

Dusting Down

It’s not enough to simply monitor dust levels—employers need to be proactive in removing harmful particles as fully and as often as possible.

The first step in tackling large dust spills or areas with high concentrations of particles is to control spreading by closing off any contaminated areas.

In open warehouses, use partition walls to close off areas affected by dust and stop particles spreading. Containing the hazard also means employees aren’t disrupted by the clean-up and can carry on working without risk of breathing in dangerous particles.

In smaller workplaces and those without partition walls, install a local exhaust ventilation system, which extracts airborne dust and fumes, preventing the concentration in the air from becoming dangerously high. For those areas where dust cannot be eradicated, a diffusion ventilator disperses particles evenly around the space to avoid highly concentrated areas.

The most effective way to tackle large spills and dust contamination in large warehouses or buildings is using an industrial vacuum. Powerful vacuums are designed to tackle heavy-duty dust build-up, like those in manufacturing plants, where particles are generated at scale.

Industrial vacuums provide the power and coverage to tackle large contaminations in even bigger spaces. Plus, in more serious cases, it’s possible for multiple people to use the vacuum at once, covering a larger space in less time, to remove the risk.

It’s recommended to look for an industrial vacuum that comes with a HEPA filter. These filters are certified to remove at least 99.97% of dust particles from the air, down to 0.3 microns in size. Once these particles are removed, they’re trapped in the filter and can’t escape back into the environment, leaving a more hygienic environment for workers.