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Written by
on 28 June 2022


The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has launched a special campaign highlighting the dangers of dust exposure at work.

The Dust Kills campaign has seen inspectors target respiratory risks and occupational lung disease on sites across the UK, focusing on dust control and checking that employers and workers know about the danger.

HSE’s chief inspector of construction, Sarah Jardine, said: “Every year, construction workers are dying from diseases caused or made worse by their work. We urge employers and workers to take the necessary precautions today to protect their long-term lung health.”

Thousands of workers in the UK suffer from the effects of lung disease brought on by exposure to dust at work. So it’s great to see the HSE taking action. Still, too many employers remain ignorant of the serious damage dust exposure can do and their responsibilities in dealing with it.

Statistics on dust exposure

Particles of dust can be up to 100 times smaller than a grain of sand, almost invisible to the human eye. But, once inhaled, they can wreak havoc on your body. The damage is not immediate but occurs over time, triggering lung diseases and breathing difficulties later in life.

According to CITB:

  • Occupational lung disease and cancer cause around 13,000 deaths each year
  • 40% of new cancer registrations/deaths are construction workers
  • More than 500 construction workers die from exposure to silica dust every year – a shocking 10 per week – and far more suffer life-changing illnesses.

Just as with asbestos at the late end of the last century, we’re becoming more aware of the damage this invisible danger can do.

In March 2020, an All-Party Parliamentary Report on the dangers of silica dust was published. The report urged the government to take the threat of silica dust seriously and highlighted an extensive lack of awareness of silica dust and silicosis in the construction industry.

Although the government should do more, the only ones who can genuinely prevent dust exposure are those on-site, those designing and planning work, and the people who employ them.

What managers can do about dust exposure

Ultimately, the responsibility for reducing exposure to harmful substances such as dust lies with the employer.

Employers must provide workers with correct, up-to-date information on dust exposure. Any training should include a section on different dust types, the risks involved in the exposure, and the importance of taking all steps to avoid it.

Before work begins, it must be planned comprehensively and in line with the hierarchy of controls to ensure everything possible is done to mitigate and control the risks. Risk assessments should consider which tasks will produce the most dust and how this can be prevented or minimised.

Always remember that risk assessments aren’t about numbers and matrixes. They’re about identifying risks, deciding how to minimise them, and communicating this to those carrying out the work. You can learn more about avoiding risk assessment bloat here.

The most popular methods of controlling on-site dust include:

  • Planning: rotating shifts to limit exposure where possible
  • Vacuums and extractor fans: a reliable way to reduce exposure to dust – a vacuum or extractor with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter will remove many of the particles produced by grinding and cutting. Some cutting tools have dust extractors built-in.
  • Water: a simple but effective solution for reducing dust in the air. By wetting tools beforehand, you can minimise dust accumulation. Spraying water can also be effective but has considerations that should be accounted for in your risk assessments.
  • PPE: once the right tools and equipment have been put in place, you should also consider using respiratory protective equipment (sometimes called RPE) such as masks and filters to reduce personal exposure. Personal protective measures should only be considered once environmental and general controls have been prioritised.

What employees can do

As mentioned above, the onus is on employers to take responsibility for dust exposure, not employees. However, some steps that employees can take to protect themselves from exposure.

  • Wear clothing that resists dust (you should not be expected to purchase your PPE)
  • Driving construction vehicles, drive slower to prevent dust clouds from being kicked up.
  • Keep construction areas as clean, tidy, and open as possible to prevent build-up (hygiene and housekeeping should be considered in a risk assessment)
  • If you feel you are being put in an unsafe situation, you should report this to either a manager or the HSE.

Independent Safety Survey

Understanding your site and the potential risks that can be found there is crucial to reducing exposure to dangers such as dust.

At Veritas Consulting, we offer in-depth, independent site audits, which can highlight risk factors and dangers that you might overlook. To find out more, click here, or get in touch via the contact form above.

A chartered (fellow) safety and risk management practitioner with 20+ years of experience. David provides a healthy dose of how-to articles, advice and guidance to make compliance easier for construction professionals, Architects and the built environment. Get social with David on Twitter and Linkedin.

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