Do you know the Dangers of Dust – The Devil is in the Detail

The Problem

A hundred years ago coal miners knew about the dangers of black coal dust in their lungs, and more recently the dangers of asbestos have been well publicised, but it has still taken us years to recognise that there are other dangerous dusts. Finally, we have regulation and legislation concerning dusts, but there is still a lot of confusion amongst people on the ground about how to deal with it. Sadly, almost weekly, I still see examples of workers not even taking basic precautions, like a dust mask, when using machines. Who should take responsibility? Employers, employees or individuals? And what counts as an adequate response to dust in various situations? We are still working some of this out at the moment – especially for one-man bands. In factories and bigger workplaces the rules and responsibilities are much clearer.

Some of the statistics concerning dust are quite shocking. Each year in the UK over 500 construction workers die from the effects of silica dust, and over 1300 die from occupational lung disease and cancer. More seriously, over 8,000 die from dust-related conditions. The construction industry is by far over-represented in these statistics because it has been calculated that construction dust makes up 4% of total UK dust emissions. Almost all trades – plumbers, bricklayers, carpenters etc – encounter dust at work on a regular basis and this helps explain why over 40% of occupational cancer deaths are in the trades.

And it costs, too – over £1.1 billion is lost on workplace injury and poor health in the construction industry, with over 2.3 million working days lost due to fatalities and serious illness. I don’t want to be a harbinger of doom, because, in fact, the UK construction industry has become a much safer place to work in the last ten years or so. This is largely due to the widespread introduction of Health and Safety representatives on worksites and the adoption of safer working practices, but since we seem to be winning the wider safety battle, it is surely time to focus on dust as well. We can’t be complacent – the statistics tell us that since 2013 over 42,000 people have reported suffering from work-related breathing or lung problems in the UK.

What counts as Dust?

The definition of dust is quite specific for the purposes of legislation and industries – it is particles of a material ranging from 1 to 1,000 microns in size. But there is a further definition to take on board. Total inhalable dust is up to 100 microns in size and can be inhaled right into the respiratory tract. Respirable dust up to 10 microns in size is normally invisible in standard light conditions and is so light that it can stay in the air for up to 8 hours. More to the point, it can be inhaled right into the lungs where the actual breathing process of taking oxygen from air and putting it into the bloodstream takes place. Clearly a very dangerous situation.

Where Dust Comes From?

You don’t have to be a genius to work out where most dust comes from on a building site. A lot of the basic construction processes of building, like cutting, drilling, demolition, and even sweeping are dust creators. There are three types of construction dust. The most dangerous appears to be silica dust that comes from sandstone, concrete and mortar. These are also the materials that are hard to cut and usually produce a lot of dust when cut with our current standard methods like diamond discs. For example, sandstone contains between 70 to 90% silica, so is a particularly dangerous material to process. Wood and wood-related materials are also guilty of producing dangerous dusts.

Wood-based products like MDF also contain glues that add to their toxic effects and the processes of shaping, cutting and sanding them can also produce dust that is hard to extract. On the lower levels of the danger scale are materials like dolomite, plasterboard or marble because they contain little or no silica. But this is still not an excuse to take no precautions when using these materials.

What You Can Do to Keep You and Others Safe?

The construction industries seem to be gathered around the following three control methods to impact on dust exposure – AVOID, PREVENT and MINIMIZE. The good thing about these points is that anyone can look at these and devise a strategy suitable for their level and type of work. So, let’s look at them.

AVOIDING making silica dust can be as easy as buying the right size materials from suppliers so that they don’t need to be cut on site. Factory cutting of sandstone flags is usually well controlled and safe, for example. The same is true of timbers and boards – if possible, the use of standard sizes is to be encouraged, not only as the green option, but as a lung-safe one as well.

But there is a limited application to the AVOID strategy, so the next step is to PREVENT. We are all familiar with dust suppression methods via vacuum collection, water damping and so on. Modern power
tools are so much better at channelling and collecting dust away from the user and hopefully straight into an M class vacuum machine. And finally, the MINIMISE strategy has several points to take note of. The most obvious is to use a correctly fitted and rated face mask for the workers involved. This protects the workers directly, but due note may need to be taken that others could be exposed to the dust created – the people walking past a construction site, for example. In this case, dust may need to be damped down by a very fine water mist spray, or the air may be filtered clean with a filter
cube. The use of smaller tools may be needed to localise the dust and thus control it more easily in a more confined space. Most of the above can be done at any level – from a
domestic repointing job to a major construction site, and as long as the Health and Safety person is pro-active, dangers should be minimised.

And Then There is the Kit

And, of course there is the need to invest in the latest kit. That old wet-and-dry vac that gets dragged along to every job (I hold my hand up here as guilty of this) is no longer enough to connect up to a power tool, or use to clean up at the end of the day. It will be more expensive to buy a powerful M class machine, but the great thing is there is a varied choice on the market – so retailers, it’s time to get the knowledge and information at your fingertips, because your customers need it.

Other Reading:

Heath and Safety Executive Dust in the Workplace General Principles of Protection (direct PDF Download from the HSE website – opens in new tab)

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