Hazardous Dust in Industrial Settings

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While there are always hazards and risks involved when working in job sites, one of the most overlooked dangers is dust. While most dust is entirely harmless, some types and classes can be fatal to inhale. In fact, some hazardous dust is entirely invisible to the naked eye. That’s why it has never been more critical to understand how to handle dangerous dust in the workplace.
 
But what is hazardous dust? What type of industrial work is likely to generate it? How can we readily protect ourselves from breathing in dust particles? Let's take a close look at what makes certain dusts hazardous and what can be done to protect workers’ health.

What is Hazardous Dust?

Simply put, it's the airborne particles created during working processes that can harm the human body. Some dust particles can be breathed in without even realising it, particularly those that are small enough to travel deep into our lungs and respiratory systems. These are the dangerous ones because they're too small for our bodies to cough out or remove from the airways. 
 
If contained in the lungs, these dust particles can latch onto cells and kill them. Then the dead cells bind to the walls of the lungs and create scar tissue. The more scar tissue that builds up over time, the more likely the lungs will slowly cease working.
 
This example, while stark, is what can occur when silica dust is inhaled, causing a condition called Silicosis.

What Can Cause Hazardous Dust?

It’s essential to recognise which materials generate the most hazardous particles before working with them.  Here are the most dangerous industrial materials you should always take exceptional care with.
 

Silica

Silica particles can travel into the lungs and cause a debilitating condition known as Silicosis. These are said to contribute to over 200 cases of lung cancer in Australia alone each year. Exposure to silica may also cause risk of emphysema, scleroderma (tissue disease) and kidney damage. Comprehensive safety measures are essential.
 
Silica is found in engineered stone, concrete, bricks and a range of other quartz-based materials. Therefore, anyone working as a stone mason or in construction / demolition may be at risk. What makes silica so deadly is the fact that the particles are so tiny and crystallised and easily thrown into the air. Only a miniscule amount of silica can have large consquences.


 

Asbestos

Materials containing asbestos are considered extremely hazardous. Asbestos fibres will generally take time to cause damage if inhaled, but this can mean that they cause long-term, long-lasting bodily harm.

Asbestos can be found in many industrial fixtures, such as tiles, cement, insulation and paint. It's a common concern, particularly when working in older buildings or structures. 
 
Conditions that can be caused by inhaling asbestos may include Asbestosis, which is similar to Silicosis in that it creates scar tissue in the lungs. Others may include cancers such as that of the lung and Mesothelioma. You may also be at risk of lung swelling, which can cause severe discomfort.
 

Wood

Inhaling wood dust may not cause as much concern as other types of dust, but it can also severely damage your lungs, especially when it has settled. Dust inhalation may cause Asthma, lung damage and even cancer. Therefore, exposure limits and extraction machines are still always recommended to help protect woodworkers.
 

Fibreglass

Dust generated when fibreglass is cut can cause a host of different health problems. For example, people inhaling fibreglass dust may develop Asthma or Bronchitis. Fibreglass particles can also cause severe irritation, particularly to the skin and eyes.
 

Metal

Metal particles can get into the air in many different ways. Grinding metal, sweeping up metal dust or even using a spray paint can release particles which could harm you.
 
As with fibreglass, metal dust can cause severe skin and eye irritation if exposed for even a short period of time. Inhaling metal dust can cause certain types of cancer, and may even cause severe damage to your lungs. Studies also suggest that metal inhalation can have neurological effects.
 

Which Dust Particles are Harmful?

Dust particles are graded by size and measured in microns, which allows us to understand whether or not they pose a health risk. A micron is equivalent to around a millionth of a metre. That means some of the dust we could breathe in is genuinely microscopic.
  • Any dust particles which measure less than 100 microns in diameter can be considered breathable.
  • There are particles which are even smaller which can pass deeper into our respiratory systems. The mid-range particles involved are measured at around 10 microns or less.
  • The most dangerous particles are those which are completely invisible. These travel deep into our lungs and can actively impact our long-term health. These measure less than 5 microns in size.
 

What Can Generate Harmful Dust?

It’s easier to generate invisible dust particles than you may think. Hazardous dust can be dispersed with little notice through everyday construction work. Some of the general work on materials listed above which can create particles may include:
  • Drilling
  • Sawing
  • Sanding down
  • Grinding and crushing
  • Earthmoving
  • Sweeping
  • Blasting
  • Mixing
  • Moulding
  • Advanced manufacturing
  • Tunnelling
Therefore, whether you work in demolition, bricklaying or advanced manufacturing, you are going to be at risk of inhaling hazardous dust. So what can you do?

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Safety and Precautions

All workplaces making use of dangerous materials should have precautions in place. It is also essential that anyone working with hazardous materials should be fully trained on what to expect. While a workplace can do plenty to protect people, good practice must also fall to the individual. 
 
Failure to take precautions could prove fatal. One mistake could put your team at risk. Therefore, it pays to plan ahead in plenty of time. Here are some essential tips and guidelines to follow with regard to working with dust:
  • You must always minimise the release of dust. There should be a control procedure in place that will help you understand how and where people may be at risk.
  • Full use of PPE should always be enforced.
  • There should also be equipment used to control dust. The more opportunity there is for dust to spread, the more precautions should be taken. Air filtration systems and extraction units like Festool dust extractors, can remove dust when it is generated. It is always recommended to remove dust at the source and to use quality tools that create less dust in the first place. 
  • Advanced air filtration technology is fitted with multiple filters to not only capture harmful dust but to also prevent its release back into the air. This prevents passive inhalation of dust after work has finished.
  • Separation of work areas is also essential. Where possible, industrial projects at risk of generating harmful dust should seal off hazardous areas to prevent a wider spread of particles.
It's never wise to underestimate how harmful inhaling dust and other particles can be, which is why being aware of the risks and staying accountable for the safety of yourself and others is crucial. 
 

Staying Safe

Hazardous dust in industrial settings may not always be so obvious. Visible safety features may keep you safe from physical harm. However, dust inhalation could lead to painful, long-lasting health conditions that are far easier to prevent than to cure.
 
We have come a long way in understanding how to protect against dust inhalation and there are more ways for us to take control of our safety than ever before. Wearing respirators and sealing off dangerous areas isn't enough though; Industrial tools designed to remove and filter dust are recommended as industry essentials.
 
While understanding the science of dust dispersal and particles can take time, understanding safety measures is straightforward. Therefore, you should always train and prepare long before starting work with silica, concrete, fibreglass, asbestos or wood of any type or form.
 
Festool is Australia's leading name in power tools and safety equipment. If you need help controlling dust in your workplace, get in touch. Take a look at our dust extraction system, or call us directly on 1300 063 900 to learn more about what we do. We’re here to provide you with the equipment needed to work safely and at a fantastic standard.

We also offer free tool demonstrations on all our products so if this is of interest, book here.

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Disclaimer: This information is not endorsed by any Work Health and Safety governing body and shouldn't be interpreted as any form of legal or health advice. All regulatory and compliance enquiries must go to the relevant Worksafe organisation responsible for each region of Australia. All health-based enquiries should be discussed with and handled by a Medical Professional. Information provided in this article is accurate as of August 2019.

Festool Owners Group