Dust Detection in the Workplace

Dust in the workplace continues to receive international attention as a hidden killer. In the United Kingdom during 2015-2016, 13,000 deaths were reported as a result of past exposures at work, primarily to chemicals and dust.  Annually, there are an estimated 14,000 new cases of lung disease and breathing illnesses believed to be caused by the working environment. In petrochemical, pharmaceutical, mining and some manufacturing environments, there is also an added risk of dust explosions. In this article, Tim Turney of Casella looks at some of the wider ramifications of exposure to dust at work and the role of personal dust sampling pumps in safeguarding staff.


Health matters


There are a wide range of substances in the workplace that has the potential to cause harm to health if ingested, inhaled, or come in contact with skin. These can lead to irreversible respiratory diseases, asthma or eczema, amongst a long list of potential health problems.


Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) in the UK, the levels of inhalable dust in the workplace should not exceed 10mg/m3 and the level of respirable dust must not exceed 4 mg/m3.  Employers are advised to control levels constantly to ensure such maximums are never reached.  


From the thousands of substances that can be found within a working environment, 500 are given specific limits, under Workplace Exposure Limits regulations, commonly referred to as WELs.  For example, cobalt metal has an exposure limit of 0.1 mg/m3 and silica is 0.1 mg/m3, meaning workers can only be exposed to a small amount before the substance potentially becomes hazardous to health. If such substances are identified in the working environment, employers must be familiar with the relevant exposure limit figures. 


Accurate measurement 


Personal monitoring in the form of personal dust sampling pumps is the preferred method of measuring dust exposure levels in the workplace, allowing employers to remain compliant with government standards of safety by providing an accurate record of individual exposure levels.


Personal pumps are efficient, practical and adaptable, offering tailored features depending on individual requirements.  The pumps provide information on temperatures and dust levels, alerting employers about harmful levels of dust in the atmosphere and potential explosion risk.  To ensure personal sampling pumps accurately measure inhalable dust levels, filters connected to the devices are worn near the breathing zone (mouth and nose) absorbing air and catching particles, mimicking the way a human breathes. When required, the particles collected are sent to a laboratory for further testing.


In some instances, this is replacing traditional methods whereby reports taken from an external occupational hygienist inspecting the workplace provided evidence of dust levels. 

Personal pumps offer an enhanced monitoring system able to provide continuous data records. Data can be collected throughout seasonal and weather changes - in the summer months, there may be better ventilation, where windows might be open, as opposed to winter months where lower ventilation can make for a dustier environment.  Based on the findings, dust control measures can be modified. Workers may be required to wear additional respiratory protective equipment, or the location may need to be fitted with ventilation systems. 


When new processes are introduced, such as new machinery and ventilation equipment, the personal pumps enable tests to be made to ensure exposure limits are kept to a minimum. Ultimately, this allows workforces to become more engaged, providing staff with concrete information on how their health is being safeguarded in the workplace. 


Asbestos monitoring


The World Health Organisation estimates that 107,000 workers globally die every year from exposure to asbestos, with many succumbing to fatal respiratory diseases such as mesothelioma.


The 1999 Asbestos Prohibitions Amendment Regulations officially banned the importation, supply and use of all forms of asbestos in the UK, but it can still be found in industrial or residential buildings built or refurbished before the year 2000. Asbestos has been used in 70% of countries around the world.


For the many workers involved in asbestos removal, personal sampling pumps are increasingly being used to measure individual exposure alongside room monitors, giving a more accurate indication of specific risks workers are exposed to. Tests are required to ensure the air quality of the contaminated area is safe for individuals to remove the substance and to measure airborne exposures. 


With personal sampling pumps, workforces can continue with the removal of asbestos knowing that their overall exposure is being carefully monitored. For this specific task, the pumps must be worn on the body as part of their protective clothing, which is then sprayed down after working in the contaminated area.


When dealing with asbestos, a filter with grids is used which allows for the asbestos fibres to be counted by microscope in a laboratory. The sample is analysed after the shift has ended ensuring personal exposure is below the level allowed, providing an essential historical record.


The latest personal sampling pumps are both small and light, with Bluetooth connectivity giving the ability to access data collected remotely. They should also have a smooth surface for easy cleaning. 


Those being used in environments where there is a risk of explosions, such as the petrochemical, pharmaceutical or mining industries, will also need to be intrinsically safe and certified to ATEX or other explosion protection standards, depending on where they are being used.