When on-site, excellent health and safety practices are a must. Without properly carrying out health and safety protocols, you could be putting yourself and your colleagues at risk, both legally and physically.
This risk also applies to your employer, who will shoulder heavy legal sanctions if found to be lax with health and safety. Injuries and health problems can also slow down projects, costing your employer money.
When are you likely to come in contact with a dust hazard?
Dust hazards are one of the most commonly encountered hazards on most sites, because most power tool usage produces dust or particulate matter, as do many hand tools.
Some sites may be dusty before work even begins, particularly in areas that are not entered or maintained regularly.
Any time where you’re drilling, sawing, breaking, sanding, or otherwise shaping a material, dust is likely to collect and may become hazardous.
Dust hazards are most commonly associated in the summer months when materials become drier and more likely to aerosolise.
In cooler, wetter months the dust can stick to damp surfaces or become trapped in water vapour, settling more rapidly. Despite this, care must be taken to properly identify potential dust hazards and neutralize them no matter the weather, particularly in indoor or enclosed environments.
What risks are associated with dusty sites?
The hazard presented by dust is largely dependent on its size, its quantity and whether it’s organic or inorganic in nature. Larger dust particles are mostly stopped by your lungs’ first layer of defence: the mucous layer in your throat and bronchi.
This thick layer causes dust to stick and become trapped, resulting in a mixture of dust and mucous that the body can readily cough up or swallow to remove.
Smaller dust particles can more easily reach the lungs themselves, and therefore pose a more significant risk. Organic particles can often be detected, engulfed and broken down by macrophage cells in the lungs, but often present other risks.
For example, pollen or other plant particles (e.g. sawdust) have the potential to cause allergies to develop over time.
Inorganic particles (e.g. concrete dust or asbestos) are more difficult to engulf and reject, often resulting in cysts forming around the offending material, or inflammatory responses to be triggered.
Even worse, this inflammation (and various other mechanisms) can interfere with the normal signalling pathways of lung cells, and may eventually result in some cells becoming cancerous and potentially malignant. Asbestos in particular is well documented as causing lung cancer after prolonged exposure.
Assessing a dust risk
When determining what degree of risk dust hazards pose to you and your colleagues, there are a few points that should be considered.
The first aspect of the risk assessment is working out who will be exposed to it. Not only must you consider yourself, but also anyone who will be passing by the workplace, working nearby or may otherwise be exposed.
The regularity and degree of exposure should be determined and, depending on the type of dust, sampling and analysis may be required in order to fully understand any risks involved.
Managing and mitigating dust hazards
For some dusts, specific measures are required for handling (for example asbestos, which should be kept damp so as to avoid particles being released), but for the most part, containing and minimizing the hazard should be enough. In drastic cases, ventilation equipment or masks may be required.
Dust hazards and the law
Legislation regarding dust hazards is simple: Employers must assess dust risks on a site, attempt to minimize or control exposure, and train staff to do the same. Analysis of dust samples may be required in some cases.