Demolition, brick cutting, the use of cement, wood and stone working, drilling, exposure to paint and sanding down surfaces in preparation. These are just some of the many construction-related activities where dust is prevalent and where it needs to be controlled.
Failure to do so can be fatal or life changing. Occupational exposure to dust is one of the causes of chronic pulmonary obstructive disease, because dust hangs in the air and the smallest particles can reach deep into the lungs. As concerns grow in respect of air pollution, the risks to health are even more likely.
What does the law say about dust control at work?
Dust exposure must be risk-assessed under Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) 2002. To comply, employers should:
- Identify the hazards
- Consider who might be exposed
- Assess the risk
- Introduce controls in line with the hierarchy of risk control
The work exposure limits (WELs) are set to provide information on levels of substances in the air that could be hazardous to health. They are defined over a specified period of time or time-weighted average, either long term (more than eight hours) or short term (less than eight hours).
The daily work exposure level for silica dust is remarkably low and can be reached within minutes without controls.
Most organisations are likely to have to establish monitoring systems to determine dust levels, and health monitoring to ascertain whether controls are having an effect on their workers.
By law, anyone supplying chemicals must provide a current safety data sheet if a substance is hazardous. This will contain information on the components within the substance and on emergency controls, but this is not a COSHH risk assessment. A risk assessment will consider the actual use and application of the substance taking into account precautions in place within the process to prevent exposure.
Once the risk assessment has been completed, it is likely it has identified the need for training, so users understand why there are precautions in place. By involving users in the process, they become part of the solution.
Tips for managing dust exposure
- Look for ways to avoid cutting materials especially using power tools
- Use materials which are less hazardous
- Think about all routes of exposure, not just from inhalation, but also absorption through the skin and ingestion. Consider everyone in the environment
- Use dust suppressant systems such as damping down
- Use local extract ventilation suitable for the task, which draws dust away from the user
- Vacuum dust, rather than sweep, to keep the work environment clean
- Keep on top of housekeeping
- Use the right personal protective equipment for the job and train workers in face-fit techniques so they know how to use it correctly
- Train workers and give them information, have frank conversations
- Check the controls you introduce to ensure they are working effectively and monitor the health of workers so you can adjust controls or alter their work before they suffer harm.
Despite dust control being the new norm for larger projects, the message that this is not OK is not always reaching those involved in maintenance/repair, or those who work in the domestic sector or smaller firms. In addition, there are other processes which create dust, but this seems to be accepted or not noticed.
As a norm, significant operations such as big construction projects will have dust controls in place, but SMEs, which represent over 99 per cent of all businesses and 60 per cent of private sector employment within the UK, are more likely to have fewer or no controls. This means that the potential exposure for people working in small projects is significant.
Workplace exposure limits at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/books/eh40.htm
COSHH Regulations 2002 at: hse.gov.uk/coshh
Louise Hosking is director, Hosking Associates
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