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March 2, 2017

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Toxic dust and behavioural change

Dust is tiny, dry airborne particles that are produced when materials are cut, drilled, demolished, sanded, or shovelled.

This means many work activities can create dust. Dust is not always an obvious health hazard as the particles which cause the most damage are often invisible to the naked eye and the health effects of exposure can take many years to develop.

How can dust be harmful?

  • Breathing dust into the lungs – inhaling dust can create respiratory problems.
  • Swallowing dust – inhaled dust can enter the digestive tract causing gastrointestinal tract irritation. Alternatively, they can enter the bloodstream causing damage to other organs and tissues.
  • Eye contact with dust – dust particles can enter the eye causing damage or irritation.
  • Skin contact with dust – some dust can cause ulceration of the skin, irritation and dermatitis.

Some dusts present more of a hazard than others, including:


The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 places general duties on employers to protect employees from dust in the workplace in addition to the more specific Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 (with the exception of asbestos and lead).

How to control dust in your workplace

  • Minimise emission, release and spread of substances hazardous to health.
  • Consider routes of exposure – inhalation, skin absorption and ingestion – when developing control measures.
  • Choose effective and reliable control measures to minimise the escape and spread of dust, proportionate to the health risk.
  • Provide suitable personal protective equipment where necessary.
  • Check and review effectiveness of control measures.
  • Inform and train all employees on the hazards and controls in place – including cleaning and maintenance staff.

Practical control measures may include the following:

  • segregate the process from employees – consider enclosures;
  • control dust at source using water suppression techniques (applicable to mobile work);
  • provide local exhaust ventilation connected to dust emitting processes;
  • provide clean welfare facilities for washing and changing as exposure can be increased through eating, drinking, smoking or using cosmetics;
  • use specialist advisers, such as an occupational hygienist, to guide you in the appropriate control measures for the particular dust exposure. Note that for some dusts there are specific Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs) which provide a guide for employers to help them control exposure; and
  • wearing of PPE/RPE (gloves, respirators) by individuals. Note that where respiratory protective equipment is concerned, it is essential that it fits the individual user (by face fit testing) and that it is suitable for the dust particle size. PPE/RPE also requires clean storage, checking and maintenance, and operator training in correct usage.

Highway road workers use high power saws

Years of dedicated awareness campaigns, drives, and supporting legislation has resulted in a greater national understanding of the dangers of asbestos. However, individuals still remain relatively unaware of the unseen toxicity of dust particulates in their working environment that can lead to chronic, often fatal, diseases.

This lack of awareness extends to heightened noise and vibration levels exceeding safety limits, often resulting in debilitating physical problems. In the workplace, risks are taken on a daily basis because people are often unaware of the long term effects, due to this lack of education.

In order to control these issues and increase employee awareness of the conditions they may be exposed to, workplace behaviours must change to shape new habits.

Measuring workplace exposures is a positive process and one which employers and employees need to understand. For companies who have successfully changed behaviours as the result of enforcing a new strategy, the process must be maintained and carefully monitored in order for the workforce to thrive.

But how can other employers implement an entirely new process that will truly change behaviours and improve the wellbeing of the workforce at the same time?

Shaping new behaviours

Behavioural change strategies are focused on employers becoming mindful of their employee’s actions, understanding the impacts and ‘nudging’ a change to eventually transform workplace habits. First recognised as a successful business strategy in the late 1980s, such strategies are now implemented across a range of sectors in the UK, often leading to improvements in occupational health and safety processes, productivity and finances.

Monitoring employee health has gained precedence as a key factor for shaping health and safety strategies, increasing employee engagement, and ensuring individuals are adhering to the correct processes.

The pros and cons

Enforcing new behaviours isn’t an easy task and an education process is central to changing routines. Safety cultures and the belief of: “That’s how we do things around here” influences decisions, as well as several other factors such as mutual trust, communication, supervision, workable solutions as well as risk perceptions.

To influence employers to monitor the workforces’ exposure to noise, dust and vibration a clear outcome is needed as justification for enforcing the new behaviour and changing habits.

The tangible advantages include a reduction in workplace absenteeism, reduced risks of debilitating illnesses, improved communication and employee engagement as well as enhancing productivity.

Despite clear advantages, many employers remain sceptical about embracing new technologies and workplace practises and there is the belief that it may draw attention and resources away from safety critical issues.

It is also often thought that the duties of the management will be shifting onto individual employees, potentially demotivating and stressing individuals who are not keen to have such a responsibility.

Despite this belief, monitoring safe behaviours and treating health like safety will eventually become a universal responsibility and so employer and employees alike must embrace this – the approach is crucial.

Stories of success are a key factor in increasing confidence. In an IOSH publication: Looking for Higher Standards examples are given that prove implementing new behavioural safety procedures can lead to positive outcomes:

  1. A manufacturing company with 1,400 members of staff introduced a behavioural safety programme and gained:
  • Improved productivity and working days lost due to injury per year dropped from 550 to 301 in four years.
  • Improved public image, managers presented their successes at major conferences.
  • Staff development including better communication, IT skills and greater confidence.

2. A behavioural safety programme at a petrochemicals plant delivered positive results:

  • A saving of over $300K per year through early detection and repair of leaks.
  • Major reductions in operating costs as workers became more confident about identifying and dealing with problems. A 32% reduction in insurance premiums.

Smart Sensors

Change can be daunting but introducing new strategies in the workplace and encouraging a shift in behaviour doesn’t need to be challenging.

New monitoring solutions represent a change, making it easier for employees to understand. The latest solutions available allow for real time monitoring, enabling individual’s to capture their own quantitative data, becoming an occupational hygienist in their own right. Motivation and job satisfaction could actually increase.

By implementing clear health and safety strategies and maintaining these solutions, behaviours will naturally change, resulting in improved employee motivation, productivity and business costs.

Tim Turney is technical product manager at Casella

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