Lowering Dust Exposure in the Workplace

blog 04 Jul 2023

Dust exposure can have significant long-term implications on our health and wellbeing, in some instances even resulting in death. The HSE are currently running a nationwide campaign, targeting construction sites throughout the UK to raise awareness of the respiratory risks from dust exposure. Have you or your company recently been visited by the HSE, or are you due to receive a visit soon? Then we’re here to help.

This blog will focus on the respiratory risks associated with varying degrees and types of dust exposure. It will highlight why dust monitoring is so essential for your business and educate on ways of keeping safe whilst working in a dust filled environment.

At Sunbelt Rentals we stock a range of tools and equipment which enable construction companies to detect, monitor and protect against dust levels. With our expert help, and world-first products, we have the power to begin protecting construction companies from dust exposure, today.


Risks of Dust Exposure

A vast number of construction activities can create dust. But because dust particles are so small, they are not always visible to the naked eye, and don’t pose an obvious health risk. Yet, statistics reveal that construction workers die every single week from lung diseases caused by exposure to dust. And many more suffer from severe chronic long-term lung conditions.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) there are 17,000 self-reported breathing or lung problems which are worsened by work. Perhaps more frighteningly, 12,000 lung disease deaths each year are estimated to be linked to past exposures at work.* These are the devastating effects of one of the most common but underestimated hazards in the workplace.

Dust Regulations

Despite dust posing a major issue across the construction industry – as evidenced by the HSE’s ‘Dust Kills’ inspection campaign – confusion still exists around regulations and British Standards for dust and air quality. In addition to the primary reference point in The Control of Pollution Act 1974, the HSE have also provided some useful guidance and resources to help ensure that you are complying with existing regulations:

  • Workplace exposure limits Workplace exposure limits - COSHH (hse.gov.uk)
  • COSHH G409 Exposure Sampling Measurement Air Sampling COSHH G409 (hse.gov.uk)
  • HSE: Methods for the Determination of Hazardous Substances (MDHS) - Methods for the determination of hazardous substances guidance (hse.gov.uk)
  • HSG173 Monitoring strategies for toxic substance Monitoring strategies for toxic substances (hse.gov.uk)

What are the most hazardous types of dust?

So which types of dust pose the biggest threat? The construction industry frequently produces dust as a by-product of its work. Dust can be produced when materials are cut, drilled, demolished, sanded, or shovelled. But some types of dust are more harmful than others and over time can cumulate in devastating chronic health conditions.

Dust is generally categorised as inhalable, thoracic, or respirable dust. Inhalable dust tends to be larger in scale and refers to particles as large as 100 microns in diameter. Whilst still posing a threat to health, inhalable dust is typically captured by mucus, and rarely results in serious long term health issues.

It is the ultra-fine dust - such as silica dust - which is sometimes known as the ‘invisible killer’ due to its ability to reach the deepest part of the lungs. Silica is commonly found in many construction materials such as concrete and mortar and can contain various hazardous metals, made airborne via grinding or drilling processes.

Long-term, silica dust can cause serious health problems, such as lung cancer, COPD, silicosis, and asthma. Unfortunately, these diseases may only become evident after a long period of time, often when it is too late for treatment to have any effect. Therefore, an effective dust control system on site is vital.

Dust and the Environment

Dust emissions don’t just have an impact on construction workers and those in the immediate vicinity but can also pose environmental outside of construction site boundaries.

In terms of air quality, fine dust particles (less than 10 micrometres in diameter, known as PM10) are now recognised as significant causes of pollution. Due to their small size, they can be carried from sites even in light winds and may have an adverse effect on the local environment, the health of local residents, and even local wildlife and plants too.

On a more practical level, dust can cause annoyance to nearby residents by the soiling of windows, cars and washed clothes hung out to dry.

Construction site operators therefore need to demonstrate that dust emissions from their sites are adequately monitored and controlled.

How can we mitigate the risk of dust exposure?

The good news is that whatever your situation, today’s advanced dust monitoring and control solutions ensure that appropriate action can be taken to significantly reduce the risk of dust exposure.

The Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineering (CIBSE) states that a hierarchy of controls should always be considered to ensure the safest and most effective control method is achieved. Elimination of the hazard and substitution of the hazard are the most effective means of control. But practically, these may not be an option. This is when an engineering control is to be considered.

In simple terms, engineering controls protect workers by removing hazardous conditions or by placing a barrier between the worker and the hazard. Examples could include dust extraction products, such as our DC2900 VAC, or correctly fitted respiratory protective equipment (RPE).

Risk can also be reduced through the implementation of control measures and the use of tools and equipment that enable detection and monitoring of dust levels. Let us walk you through the process.

Step 1: Consultation and online dust monitoring in real time

It’s important to consider that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution and it is always advisable to consult with a dust control equipment specialist before work is carried out. They will be able to identify the hazard, consider the users’ exposure to dust and the contact time, the working periods and how dust will migrate from the place of works. These factors will all help to identify the best control measure.

We work alongside our customers to provide effective long-term dust monitoring solutions. In many cases, we place dust monitoring units on site even before construction work has started. This allows us to gauge the dust and air quality levels prior to work commencing. With new innovations available, such as our Trolex Air XS Silica Monitor and XD1+ Personal Dust Monitor, organisations are now able to monitor hazards which were previously difficult to detect.

Our Trolex Air XS Silica Monitor, a world-first, real-time monitoring device for Respirable Crystalline Silica, provides organisations with both a way of surveying sites before work begins, as well as a health and safety tool to prevent dangerous exposure levels. Silica particulates increase in danger as they get smaller, so being certain that you’ve eliminated the unseen ones is critical.

The second new product, our XD1+ Personal Dust Monitor, is an easy-to-use wearable device. In the past, wearable devices have often been avoided due to discomfort, resulting in a serious lack of compliance and subsequent risks to the health and safety of workers. That’s how this device is different: with its compact design, we have taken both comfort and safety into consideration. Again, real-time monitoring and alerts have also been incorporated, ensuring that we offer enhanced on-site safety and data to help your organisation track trends and identify solutions before problems arise.

As mentioned previously, the effects of dust can also have a significant impact on the wider environment. This is where environmental monitoring stations play a vital role. They can often be customised to meet the individual needs of a site and monitor everything from dust and vibrations to wind speed directions. The Casella Guardian is a popular choice due to its ability to act as an all-in-one station, with the reports it produces enabling contractors to make important decisions regarding works being carried out on site.

The common thread between these products is that they all produce real-time reports and data, which then play a crucial role in both avoiding imminent risk and enabling positive long-term changes to protect workers health. Without such equipment, risks are left exposed, putting both construction workers and the wider community in danger. That is why these new innovations are key, invest today and begin protecting your own workers’ health.

Step 2: Containment

A crucial step in mitigating the risk of dust exposure is looking at whether we can contain the area, to prevent migration of airborne hazards and protect sensitive areas. It’s far easier to control a smaller area than a larger one, so if there is any action to be taken in order to reduce the working space, this should be carried out. It is also worth considering whether any adjacent areas need additional protection.

The contained area should be under negative air pressure, considering where dust will travel immediately from the source and achieve the correct air changes for the collection of fine dust particulates. At Sunbelt Rentals, we provide temporary containment solutions for hire that are versatile and environmentally friendly alternatives. Our HEPACART® AnteRoom and HEPACART® mobile containment carts are perfect for use in sterile facilities, such as healthcare settings whilst the STARC® Wall System, an airtight modular temporary wall system, can be used to create safe working zones with up to 25 decibel sound reduction to minimise disruption to the wider environment.  For construction zones products such as the Cutting Station Noise Barrier Containment Tents provide a compact and portable solution excellent for reducing noise pollution during cutting jobs and, being both water and temperate resistant they are ideal for outside use.

Step 3: Capture and Suppress

Ventilation controls allow you to maintain healthy levels of oxygen and remove hazardous containments from the atmosphere and are vital for ensuring the safety and comfort of your workers. We stock a wide range of ventilation equipment, from our 10,000 Axial Fan, which is suited for high volume air supply and extraction and designed to provide the highest possible air flow, to the 35,000 Centrifugal Fan, which provides supply and extraction through long duct runs into tunnels, basements, and other enclosed spaces.

When using ventilation controls as a protection measure, both on-tool extraction and ambient filtration should be in place to maximise the effectiveness for capture of dust. That’s where our experts can help. On-tool extraction, such as our DC2900 VAC, will collect the immediate, coarser materials that will be emitted from the tool or machine, while the ambient filtration - normally fitted with a hood and high in pressure - will ensure that fine respirable dust, which can remain suspended for hours after becoming airborne, is captured imminently.

The closer the position of capture, the more successful the control. The hood is an important part of the dust extraction set-up as it increases the surface area and position to the hazard. Much of our extraction equipment also contains HEPA 13 filters. Such filters are considered ‘hospital grade’, as they’re primarily stocked in settings where pure, unpolluted air is a necessity and ensure the highest grade of filtration across our range of equipment, trapping up to 99.95% of particles.

For instances where complete capture isn’t possible, dust suppression is often regarded as the next most effective method. Dust suppression is the use of liquid to prevent the airborne dissemination of fine particles. You can effectively supress dust using water or surface treatments and here at Sunbelt Rentals, we have recently started stocking dust cannons and misters to help your business with dust suppression.

Step 4: Protecting Workers

Another method of engineering control is ensuring that all operatives carrying out tasks are equipped with the correct RPE (Respiratory Protective Equipment) or PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). There are many types of RPE designed to protect the wearer from hazards such as dust. Face Fit Testing is required for RPE masks such as disposable half masks, reusable filter or cartridge half masks, full face filter or cartridge masks and escape set masks.

Face Fit testing is a method of checking that a specific model and size of a tight fitting facepiece matches the wearer’s facial features and seals adequately to the wearer’s face. It also helps identify facepieces which may not be suitable for the wearer.

The HSE advises that fit testing should be conducted by a competent person and that competence can be demonstrated by accreditation under the Fit2Fit RPE Fit Test Providers Accreditation Scheme. Sunbelt Rentals not only supplies RPE such as masks, but also specialises in face fit testing with several strategically located Fit2Fit accredited Respiratory Technicians deployed across the UK.

Lastly: Regular Checks and Maintenance

Even though it’s crucial to select the correct dust control solution for the job in hand, what is equally important is to ensure that equipment is working properly every time. Use the pressure gauge (manometer) and monitoring to confirm the controls are working effectively. Is the ducting as straight as possible? Is leakage minimized with no turbulence or restriction of the air flow/velocity?

Finally, once work has finished, it’s important to return clean air to the area so dust control units should be kept running for a period of time afterwards to ensure full ambient capture.

It is crucial that we are aware of the devastating health risks associated with dust exposure and ensure that we take the necessary steps to protect both workers and the wider community. Reflecting on case studies from similar campaigns executed by the HSE in recent years, findings detail the effects of flour dust on a school cook, welders exposed to daily dust and fumes, and occupational asthma caused by isocyanates. These working environments have since been fitted with ventilation controls, extractor tools and appropriate PPE to detect, monitor and prevent exposure to dust and other harmful toxins.

The effects of dust are widespread and prevalent. But by investing in dust control equipment, we can ensure the safest and most effective control method is achieved and prioritise the health and wellbeing of our workers.

The HSE’s ‘Dust Hub’ at https://www.hse.gov.uk/dust/index.htm provides a wealth of information to help employers control exposure to dust in the workplace. You can also contact our experts for further advice. We’re here to help.


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