Dust at work has been one of the all-time largest occupational killers with workers in mines, quarries, foundries, textiles, mills, bakeries, or industries with wood, leather and radioactive materials susceptible to ill health as a result.

Typical associated health problems include allergies, asthma, blood disorders, cancer, emphysema, mesothelioma, nervous system damage, silicosis and skin and eye damage.

The skin, eyes, nose, throat and lungs can be affected, depending on the pollutant. Flu-like symptoms may also be experienced together with a blocked or runny nose; occasionally nausea may accompany these symptoms. In the long term, when people are dosed up with polluted air daily, the above symptoms become more serious and permanent injury can result.

The most effective action is to remove the source of risk; this is done by identifying what is polluting the air (fumes, dusts, tobacco smoke, oil mist, etc.) and removing that source from the environment by elimination, encapsulation or by local exhaust ventilation (LEV). But keeping the workplace clean is an important control measure for dust hazards.

There are two primary, but not mutually exclusive sources of dust hazard:

  1. Inhalable dust: This is visible dust which is collected in the saliva and mucus in the mouth, throat and nose and either expelled from the body or ingested. Dust contaminated by toxins can find their way into the digestive tract and on into the blood stream and be distributed around the body and its organs.
  2. Respirable dust: Is not visible to the eye nor to some optical microscopes. The dust by-passes the body’s filters and enters the lungs and lodges in the gas exchange cells of the lung (alveoli). Toxins may be taken into the bloodstream this way too.

Statistics from hazards

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that each year there are over 1000 new cases of asthma caused by exposures to dust at work. These figures are based on returns from a number of health studies being conducted during the 1990’s. It is believed by the HSE that the true figure is probably at least three times this. Additionally, the HSE reports that 70,000 people in the UK believe that they have asthma caused, or made worse, by substances breathed in at work.

Health risks from air pollution are not simply limited to bronchial problems. Chemical dusts and fumes find their way into the body via exposed skin surfaces as well as the lungs, causing diseases which vary from permanent painful and irritating skin conditions, to central nervous system damage, brain damage, liver damage, cancer, damage to eyes and straightforward poisoning.

Life changing results

Lifelong ill-health can result from being sensitised to naturally occurring substances such as ozone; this gas accumulates in workshops or offices where there is equipment that uses electrostatic discharges (electric arc welding in workshops and, in offices, photocopier and laser printer use). There is the possibility of developing a condition called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) which causes the body to react badly to a range of chemical exposures at very low doses.

Many dusts including flour, coal, metal, and rubber are combustible. These and other dusts can also be explosive.

No dust should be regarded as “safe”, even some dust thought just to be a nuisance has turned out, in the light of further research, to present a significant threat.

Normal vacuum cleaners, at best, only remove inhalable dust. Machines capable of removing respirable dust from the environment must be fitted with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. Some domestic machines, such as the “Henry” or the “Dyson” can be equipped with such filters but filters must be renewed regularly to remain effective.