Dust exposure: How to protect your workers’ lung health

Dust may seem like a harmless by-product of daily builders merchant activities, but it’s a key health and safety consideration. 

Dry sweeping sawdust, concrete dust, and other debris produce airborne particles irritating the skin, eyes, nose, and throat. Prolonged inhalation can lead to serious health concerns, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer. In fact, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) stats show that 12,000 lung disease deaths each year are linked to past exposure at work. 

You can safeguard your people from life-threatening lung disease by acting on dust-related risks, implementing essential site controls, and keeping a close eye on evolving staff health requirements. 

Workplace exposure limits: measuring the risks 

Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health 2002 (COSHH) Regulations, employers must protect workers from exposure to hazardous substances so far as reasonably practicable. This includes reducing exposure to wood, MDF, and construction dust particles created by: 

  • Cutting or sawing
  • Sanding 
  • Routing
  • Changing dust bags
  • Dry sweeping

To accurately assess and control health risks, you need to know each material’s workplace exposure limit (or WEL). Set by the HSE, the WEL is the maximum concentration of a hazardous substance in the air that most people can be exposed to without suffering health problems.

For example, softwood has a WEL of 5mg per m3 and hardwood dust, known to be more hazardous, has a WEL of 3mg per m3. Employers have a duty under COSHH rules to stay within these limits. If wood dusts are mixed together, you must not exceed the lower WEL. 

Your risk assessment should start by pinpointing potentially dangerous dust materials and evaluating their exposure hazards: 

  • Measure the concentration of dust in the air at various parts of your site and during different tasks or processes.
  • Compare the measured concentrations to the HSE’s published WELs for each material. These limits typically specify the maximum allowable concentration over a specified time period, such as an 8-hour work shift.
  • Consider the duration and frequency of exposure. Even if the measured concentrations are below the WEL, ongoing inhalation could still present severe health hazards.

Protecting staff with a multi-pronged approach 

Once you’ve assessed your dust exposure risks, you can evaluate your current control measures and augment them if necessary.

Effectively reducing dust exposure requires a coordinated safety strategy – from stronger staff awareness to effective ventilation systems and personal protective equipment (PPE). Action points might include: 

  • Installing local exhaust ventilation (LEV), which is widely viewed as the most effective control method for airborne particulate dusts. LEV systems should be thoroughly examined every 14 months and it’s essential to read and act on the auditor’s follow-up report. 
  • Ensuring dry sweeping is prohibited within a mill or machining area.
  • Providing HEPA filter or M Class vacuums to remove excess wood dust in areas that LEV extensions can’t reach. 
  • Wearing appropriate PPE, such as FFP3 masks and gloves, when changing dust bags.
  • Using respiratory protective equipment (RPE) in addition to LEV when sanding. 
  • Considering face fit testing as part of your risk assessment when FFP3 masks are required. 
  • Using a high-powered dust lamp to identify areas that are particularly hazardous during certain processes, potentially eliminates the need for air monitoring. 
  • Changing dust bags when they reach two-thirds full. Overfilling can cause spills and excess dust. Similarly, dust bags can negatively draw and block ductwork if they are too full. Overloaded bags can also increase the odds of manual handling injuries.
  • Training employees to recognise and act on dust exposure risks and report the early warning signs of poor lung health, including coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and allergic reactions. 

Stepping up lung protection with spirometry 

If you need more comprehensive protection after implementing the above controls, consider using occupational health lung function testing (spirometry) or air monitoring to assess remaining exposure levels. 

Spirometry offers valuable information about lung function, making it easier to diagnose and monitor respiratory conditions like asthma and COPD. Spirometry testing can help to: 

  • ‍Proactively track workers’ lung health and locate employees who are at risk of developing dust-related respiratory issues. 
  • Establish targeted control measures to reduce exposure and protect staff health.
  • Capture baseline data to record changes over time, highlight deteriorating lung function, and facilitate early intervention.  
  • Achieve consistent COSHH compliance and demonstrate an ongoing commitment to employee health and safety. 

For tailored guidance on controlling workplace dust hazards and establishing an effective spirometry or occupational health programme, talk to the Opus Safety team. 

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