Why you need to step up control of dust exposure
Respiratory protective equipment, extraction systems, and the right training and education are crucial to protect site staff from construction dust, says Damian Lynes.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) 2016/17 injury and ill-health statistics, published at the beginning of November, show exposure to harmful dust causes 12,000 lung disease-related deaths a year, many of them in the construction industry.
About 800 of these deaths are caused by exposure to respirable silica dust (from concrete, brick and stone), second only to asbestos.
Cutting brick and stone, grinding, sanding wood, drilling and demolition all create dust. Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002, employers must undertake a risk assessment of each activity, setting out how the risk from dust will be prevented or controlled, along with the mitigation measures that will be put in place, before work begins.
Minimising the amount of dust produced, and controlling exposure to that dust (including for how long workers are exposed), are the first steps in any risk management strategy.
Dust can be controlled by fitting water suppression devices to tools to damp down dust clouds and by using on-tool dust extraction systems. It is also important to ensure work areas are well-ventilated and regularly cleaned.
According to the HSE’s Construction Information Sheet (CIS69), on-tool extraction systems and vacuum cleaners must be high (H) or medium (M) class devices, because only these machines are capable of trapping more than 99.9% of dust with a particle size of less than two microns, such as respirable silica.
So, while standard domestic vacuum cleaners are sometimes used on construction sites, either for on-tool extraction or to clean up at the end of a day’s work, they are only suitable for filtering lower-toxicity dusts, such as gypsum in plasterboard.
It is, of course, difficult to eliminate exposure to dust completely, so providing suitable respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is a crucial element of any risk management strategy.
RPE comes in all shapes and sizes, giving different levels of protection, from small disposable masks with filters, to those systems providing complete respiratory, head, eye and face protection, with power-assisted respirators or breathing apparatus. Each item of RPE has a filter classification, ranging from P1 to P3 (the highest level of protection), and must meet the latest PPE regulations and be CE marked.
The choice of RPE will depend upon the type of activity and the working environment, what dust is likely to be produced and what other PPE is being worn (such as safety glasses), including fit and comfort.
Getting a good fit is critical, as poorly-fitting RPE is the biggest cause of leaks, and because, if equipment is not comfortable, workers may not wear it. As a result, the COSHH regulations, the Control of Lead at Work, the Control of Asbestos Regulations and the Ionising Regulations all require face-fit testing. Many suppliers sell kits to enable employers to check masks are fitted properly before work begins on site.
Employers’ responsibilities go beyond just providing appropriate, well-fitting masks, however. They must also ensure operatives are trained in how to use the equipment, including what checks to carry out before and during work, how to keep it clean and how to ensure it is well-maintained. This should be checked as part of the regular review of the dust risk management strategy.
While improvements in RPE technology mean workers are probably better protected than ever, lung disease remains a serious issue for the construction industry and requires a wider approach that encompasses risk management and education of workers of the dangers of harmful dust.
In November, HSE announced the establishment of the Healthy Lung Partnership to reduce work-related lung disease. Members include the HSE, government departments, trade associations, trade unions and professional bodies.
It is also looking for commercial sponsorship of two research projects, one of which aims to develop sensors that will stop tools from working if they do not have dust extraction systems fitted.
The HSE is clearly concerned: its latest construction inspection campaign, launched in October, focuses on the control of harmful dust, with a demand for proportionate, appropriate and risk-based advice from suppliers to control exposure to lung-damaging dust; something reputable firms will already be giving their customers.
Damian Lynes is a director with specialist safety supplier OnSite Support