Escaping from airborne or dispersed tiny particles of dust can be challenging. Dust is generated in almost every task we undertake, and many job types contribute to the presence of dust. Therefore, most people find themselves working in dusty environments, and some workplace dusts can pose significant risks to employees. Since exposure to dust is not a short-term issue, health problems related to dust can emerge over time.  Therefore, controlling dust today is crucial for your future health. Dust hazards in the workplace are among the biggest concerns for health and safety, and they can be a persistent issue in every sector, including construction, mining, and manufacturing.  Exposure to dust can lead to a wide range of health problems, such as COPD, lung, and skin cancer, asthma, and other respiratory disorders.

In this article, we will focus on dust hazards in the workplace arising from various processes and discuss how to mitigate risks to employee health.

What Work Activities May Create Dust?

Dust generated as a result of many work activities is one of the challenging things to get rid of.  Especially for those working in enclosed spaces, some types of workplace dust can be extremely hazardous. The activities that produce dust include but are not limited to:

  • Cutting, milling, sanding, grinding, polishing, and similar operations
  • Removing insulation, lagging, or packing materials
  • Storing large quantities of processed materials
  • Cleaning up debris
  • Filling or emptying bags
  • Screening processes
  • Handling feed and bedding for farm animals.

Who is Most at Risk?

Exposure to dust can lead to irritation in the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract, causing dry or watery eyes, dermatitis, nose and throat discomfort, and respiratory illnesses.  Prolonged exposure can result in conditions such as silicosis, coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer.

Workers involved in stone cutting and quarrying, for example, are at a higher risk of developing respiratory tract diseases like asthma and pneumonia, as well as experiencing significant vision problems. In addition to these, individuals working in fire rescue services, where there is a risk of asbestos exposure, workers in food services with high levels of flour dust, and woodworkers exposed to fine wood dust are also at risk.

5 Dangerous Types of Dust Hazards in the Workplace

Dust hazards in the workplace not only cause irritation but can also pose serious health risks.  The negative effects of prolonged exposure to dust or working in a consistently dusty environment may become evident years later.  For example, it is known that occupational asthma can be caused by flour dust and certain wood dusts.

Inhaling hazardous dusts such as asbestos dust and silica dust can lead to extremely lethal diseases like cancer.  Among the hazardous dusts that can be deadly, we can include the following:

1. Sawdust

At every stage of woodworking processes such as cutting with saws and sanding, sawdust is generated.  The release of sawdust during woodworking and when cleaning and maintaining equipment can pose serious risks to employees.

It can lead to effects like irritation in the eyes, nose, and throat, shortness of breath, throat dryness, eye discharge, rhinitis, dermatitis, and more.  Prolonged exposure can result in reduced lung capacity, allergic reactions, and occupational asthma. These are some of the dust hazards in the workplace.

2. Silica dust

Silica dust is generated in industries such as mining, tunneling, and quarrying due to activities like blasting, screening, drilling, crushing, and transporting materials containing silica.  The most common form of silica dust is quartz, which is naturally found in many rocks and soils.

Exposure to silica dust can lead to a lung disease known as silicosis. Even short-term exposure to large amounts of silica dust can result in acute silicosis.  Additionally, silica dust increases the risks of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), tuberculosis, and kidney disease.

3. Coal dust

Coal dust can be found wherever coal is extracted, stockpiled, and loaded for transport.  Workers involved in not only mining but also in the storage and loading of coal are exposed to the risks associated with coal dust.

Exposure to coal dust can lead to a disease known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis or “black lung” disease, which significantly affects respiration. This is one of the dust hazards in the workplace.

4. Asbestos dust

Asbestos dust is extremely hazardous to health. It consists of flexible, soft, heat-resistant fibers and is produced from the naturally occurring asbestos mineral. When these fibers are inhaled, they can settle in the lungs and potentially lead to cancer and asbestosis, making exposure to asbestos potentially lethal. Breathing in any amount of asbestos in workplace settings is dangerous.

5. Metalliferous dust

Mining for metals such as lead, iron ore, copper, gold, nickel, silver, and zinc generates metal dust during activities like extraction, drilling, transportation, crushing, stockpiling,  and processing of minerals.

Metallic ores like silver, uranium, and nickel contain toxic dust particles that can lead to severe inflammation in the lungs and are also toxic to body tissues and various organs.

Legal Requirements for Dust Hazards in the Workplace

Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations also covers dust. Additionally, there are legal limits in place for workplace exposure to certain dusts, such as silica dust, which specify the maximum amount of dust you can be exposed to during a normal working day. Asbestos, being extremely hazardous, has its own regulations.

Even if you are not working in environments with high-risk hazardous dust, dust should not be ignored as an issue.  Employers should prioritize the topic of dust hazards in the workplace and always create a safe working environment for their employees.  This safe and healthy working environment should also encompass controlling dust exposure.

Controlling Dust Hazards in the Workplace

If a dusty environment at the workplace is making it difficult to breathe:

  • Identify the type of dust.
  • Assess the risk.
  • Eliminate or control dust generation.
  • Use appropriate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment).

Completely eliminating dust is the safest option. If you remove the risk, you eliminate the problem.  This can be achieved by doing tasks differently or changing the equipment and materials used.

If eliminating dust is not possible, it should be controlled at the source if feasible. Controlling dust once it’s in the air is more challenging. Effective ventilation systems, enclosures, or material dampening can be employed for dust control.

If there is still a possibility of exposure to dust, PPE should be used for protection. The type of PPE required depends on the type of dust exposure. It could range from a face shield or dust mask to a full-face respirator.

Dry sweeping after dust has settled can reintroduce dust into the air.  Therefore, consider vacuuming or wet sweeping as alternatives.

Okan Ergin

Okan Ergin

Okan Ergin has been working as the General Coordinator at Ergin Makina since 2005.