Dust is not just in the history books

New forms of dust exposure in the workplace emerge as others go into decline. Safety professionals must research the next chapter of the story.

by Louise Hosking

HSE inspectors are currently focusing on dust management within organisations, particularly the construction sector. Harmful dust exposure has traditionally centred on the most hazardous dusts such as asbestos, silica and hardwoods. Dust has been considered part of the job in many occupations – something those working within trades expect, along with a tickly cough that does not seem to shift.

How we work is evolving rapidly. SMEs account for more than 99% of businesses and around 60% of private sector employment in the UK. Meanwhile, the rise of the “gig” economy has resulted in more people working for themselves without the protection of an organisation around them. As concerns about environmental air quality also grow, the risks to an individual’s health are more likely when a combination of occupational and environmental factors is considered.

Smoking is still the most frequent cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but the condition is increasingly diagnosed as a result of occupational exposure to dusts. In fact, research by the British Lung Foundation found that COPD diagnoses have increased by 27% in the past ten years, and earlier research by the charity suggested that two-thirds of COPD sufferers did not have a formal diagnosis.

But it’s not just the incidence of COPD that’s increasing: the range of potential occupational exposures is too. As technologies continue to be developed, so too are potential new hazards created. In the rush to launch a new venture, these health risks may be overlooked.

Smelling the coffee dust

I recently visited a new business, a coffee roastery in a converted warehouse. On entering, I immediately commented on how much dust the business had accepted was part of the process. As well as dust from coffee beans, a newly laid floor was already breaking up under the use of pallet trucks and delivery vehicles that backed up to the warehouse main doors.

Raw coffee bean dust can cause occupational asthma, so we set about introducing additional ventilation, replacing brooms with vacuums and dealing with the floor.

Dust is produced in other food industries too. Flour can cause occupational asthma and become potentially explosive in some conditions. Workers in this sector are often temporary or hired through agencies, so there are fewer channels through which to raise concerns. Other harmful dusts are created from cutting or drilling into cement, stone or brick; dust is also formed when processing animal feeds or grains.

Then there is 3D printing, or producing objects using computer-aided design and a technique called fused deposition modelling. This can use a range of materials, and an HSE research project in 2018 found that many produce fine particles that can be inhaled, presenting a danger to health.

Office buildings that rely on mechanical ventilation filter incoming air, but I have seen city centre buildings where the air inlets draw in dust from neighbouring processes, or fumes and particulates from street level. I have seen filter systems that are not properly maintained or kept clean. Workers should be protected, however: under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, workplaces should be ventilated with a sufficient quantity of fresh or purified air. Here, routine air monitoring can provide reassurance that the air handling systems within the building are operating as expected.

Underground movement 

For workers and commuters on the London Underground, dust hazards include fine metal particles created from the constant braking of train wheels on steel rails in a system that’s hard to ventilate (due to the age of most tunnels). However, this can be successfully managed by cleaning, monitoring dust levels and rotating staff duties to manage exposure times.

Occupational dust exposure must be risk assessed under the general requirements of the Health and Safety at Work Act, and – if present in high enough concentrations – under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002. Some forms of dust, such as silica, also have workplace exposure limits (WEL). At just 0.1mg/m3, the WEL for silica can be reached within minutes if no controls are in place.

The future health effects of the new technologies or substances we are creating now may be uncertain, but we can learn from our past. If we are generating tiny particles that can enter the body not just from inhalation but also from ingestion or absorption through the skin, the health of those working on the task causing the pollutants, or nearby, should be prioritised.

Continued research and studies on the principles and effectiveness of control measures will be needed to ensure that businesses can remain agile, while staff are  protected from future harm. Above all, we should not view dust as a historical hazard.


Find out more about IOSH’s ‘No Time to Lose’ campaign 

Featured in Health & Safety at work September 2019