Not just a handful of dust

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Despite a significant reduction in injuries to construction workers in recent years, construction dust is still a big threat to their health, leading to too many avoidable cases of respiratory disease.

The latest UK statistics show that there were an estimated 18,000 annual new cases of breathing or lung problems caused, or made worse by work in 2017, plus 41,000 new and long-standing cases among those who worked in 2016, and 147,000 among those who have ever worked.

Added to these awful statistics, there are 12,000 deaths due to lung disease each year linked to past exposures to agents such as isocyanates, flour, cleaning products, wood dusts and enzymes in the workplace.

Lung diseases such as cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are often fatal. Deaths from mesothelioma, caused by asbestos past exposure, are still running at an annual rate of 2,500, a figure that is not predicted to fall before 2020.

In addition, there has been no change in the estimated rate of annual new cases of occupational asthma seen by specialist chest physicians over the last 10 years.

The risks

Construction dust is a long-latency hazard. Building sites suffer from high levels of pollution from cutting, grinding and sanding materials such as concrete, sand, silica, tiles and wood. These create airborne dusts, particles and aerosols that, when regularly inhaled over a prolonged period of time, damage health.

Yet many workers, even if they are aware of the risks, are still ignoring the dangers of inhaling this harmful dust, so, unfortunately, this cannot be called a thing of the past.

Proper face-fit testing of respiratory equipment is key. Photograph: JSP

Control measures and solutions

Effective control measures need to be put in place and followed. Fortunately, there are numerous respiratory protection products readily available that, if correctly worn, ensure that this state of affairs need not continue.

New, more intuitive, integrated and comfortable safety products are being constantly innovated. These new products have added features offering not only instantaneous protection, but also taking into account the effects of cumulative exposure in the future.

Proper face-fit testing of respiratory equipment is key. For example, daily face fit checking systems enable wearers to quickly and simply check their mask is adjusted to fit them at any point during the working day.

The daily reassurance given by built-in fit test check systems has led to a move away from the use of disposable masks towards this type of protection, which secures a correct fit and ensures there is no inward leakage around the mask seal.

No doubt these innovations have brought a vast improvement in workplace health and safety worldwide. Yet despite this, the construction dust issue hasn’t gone away. There is still a lot of work to be done to make building sites safer places to spend the working day.

Good manufacturers are not giving up in their quest to raise awareness and educate workers about these risks and available solutions.

Stats on occupational lung disease in GB 2017 here

Matthew Judson is director respiratory and technical support at JSP


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