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The Health Risks of Exposure to Dust

The Health Risks of Exposure to DustFirst responders come across many situations where dust is present, such as factories, dusty roads, concrete-cutting facilities and even workshops.

Dust is found in many places on a job site and can be hazardous to your health a somewhat detailed explanation of these hazards is explained below.

The Nature and Size of Dust

The human health effects of dust relate mainly to the size of dust particles. Dust may contain microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are small enough to get deep into the lungs and cause serious health problems. Large particles may irritate the nose, throat and eyes.

The particle size is a major determinant of how serious the health effect will be, especially for lung diseases and the effects on the heart.

Small particles less than 2.5 micrometres in aerodynamic diameter (called PM2.5) pose the greatest problem because they can get deep into the lungs and some may get into the bloodstream. The particles can come from industries such as foundries, and diesel engines.

Those that are smaller than 10 micrometres in aerodynamic diameter (called PM10) can also cause serious health effects in susceptible individuals if the concentration is high enough. The EPA monitors these particles in the air as part of its air quality monitoring service.

Health Risks and Dust Inhalation

Naturally occurring particles may also cause health issues. These include microorganisms, such as pollen, fungi and in certain circumstances bacteria and viruses (such as from wastewater or someone sneezing). Dust from soil can irritate the respiratory tract.

This hazard varies depending on the type of dust, the amount of dust inhaled, the size of particulate, and how well your lungs are able to remove the dust. Inhaling dust over a couple of days or months can have consequences to first responders, particularly those working in a medical or health and safety role.

For workers that deal with this hazard, it must be noted that inhaling dust over many years can cause.

  • Irritation of the eyes
  • Fibrosis (hardening of the lungs, making it difficult to breathe)
  • Cancer of the lungs, abdomen, and nose.
  • There is also the added risk of fire or explosion where dust is allowed to build up - either in the air or in extraction ducting.
  • Even flour used for baking can explode when it is in a dust form, suspended in the air. This makes the whole area unsafe.

Medical staff have been taught that dust can contain particles ranging widely in size, and it is the size and chemical nature of particles that determine the nature and severity of any ill effects on the body listed below.

  • Effects on the nervous system
  • Allergic reactions such as hay fever or more
  • Serious reactions such as asthma.

Dust is a respiratory hazard. The particles can be breathed in and irritate the upper and lower airway and lungs, which can result in breathing difficulty. There could also depend on the source of the dust be a toxin in the dust, which can further affect the lungs and airway and can lead to further illnesses. This could be in the short or long term.

If you didn't know, house dust is one of the most common triggers for asthma.

Dust in the Workplace

Dust in the Workplace

There are many situations where dust can be counted. The most common places are typically mining and industrial settings. Remember that many processes in these industries result in the production of dust.

Dust production typically occurs when large materials are crushed smaller (like crushing rocks at mines) and industries that use power and residual powder may become airborne ( like to use of flour in a bread bakery).

Examples of site-specific work for labourers that create dust include:

  • Cutting concrete, wood, or other materials
  • Scoring/cutting tile
  • Mixing mortar
  • Pouring dry cement
  • Grinding
  • Knocking or bumping into dusty materials
  • Loading, unloading, or transporting dusty materials.

Although it is not that common dust is a common problem when there is a structural/ building collapse.

Dust of any kind is a greater problem in a confined space or indoors, especially in areas with poor ventilation.

Minimizing Dust Production and Dust Suppression

Minimizing Dust Production and Dust Suppression

There are ways to minimise dust production like the use of ventilation and filters on certain machinery. These need to be maintained as they can break or become blocked. The onsite health safety officer would have identified this hazard and would have taken the following steps.

Prevent dust from getting into the air by

  • Spraying water on the workpiece before cutting, pouring material, etc.
  • Spraying water on the ground before sweeping. If wet-sweeping is not possible, use a vacuum.
  • Using a dust collector for tools or equipment if available.

Consider different ways of doing a job that could reduce the amount of dust created. For instance, you could implement dust suppression techniques:

  • Use low-speed rather than high-speed grinders
  • Order concrete blocks in various sizes to minimize the need for cutting
  • Use pre-mixed cement or mortar
  • Shorten the distance that material is dropped or tossed when pouring or shovelling dusty materials
  • Stand opposite the direction of the dust cloud.

First Responders and Dust Inhalation

First responders are well aware of the risks of dust inhalation and take the following precautions at work and while on the scene. First responders need to perform a hazard assessment when they arrive on the scene to determine what is safe. This may range from not entering the building or scene to wearing appropriate PPE.

  • Prevent dust accumulation by cleaning the work area frequently throughout the shift using a wet-sweeping method or a vacuum device purposely built for this type of work.
  • Wash your hands before eating, drinking, smoking, before and after treating a patient, as well as at the end of your shift.
  • Ventilate the area when entering a facility where dust could be present or instruct a worker or supervisor to shut down the machine that causes the dust. Also, keep members of the public and other labourers away from the area when these tasks are being done.
  • Use personal protective equipment such as face masks - full or partial, goggles, gloves, ear plugs, dust coats or breathing apparatus.

Critical interventions when treating a victim exposed to dust inhalation

Critical interventions when treating a victim exposed to dust inhalation.

If dust is causing itchy eyes, nose and skin - wash well with water and if symptoms persist seek medical attention.

For general workers, remove the victim from the source of dust and immediately call for an ambulance.

The most important measure an emergency worker can take is to first remove the patient from the source of dust as trying to properly assess or treat a patient would not help in such an environment.

Removing the patient from the area, to limit exposure would properly have the greatest effect on treatment by a layperson.

Medical personnel would also assess the patient. Most likely administer oxygen and provide supportive, symptomatic treatment

Also remember that there may be lots of dust on the patients' clothes, depending on the incident

A word of appreciation to Shawn Herbst Netcare 911 and Robert McKenzie KZN EMS

Also view

Safe Driving on Gravel Roads

Safe Driving in the Dust

Safety from Crush and Fall Injuries

Respiratory Silicosis and Mining Safety

Masks and Respiratory Protection in the Construction Industry 


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