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Dust can come in different forms and from different substances. It may be from cutting wood in a timber yard, concrete dust on a building site or flour dust in a bakery to name a few. Dust is not only a respiratory risk but is also carried in the air and can contaminate work areas and products, it can also cause slip hazards on floors. 

One of the main industries where dust is a problem is construction dust. This is a general term used to what may be found on a construction site. There are three main types: 

Silica dust – Silica is a natural mineral present in large amounts in things like sand, sandstone and granite. It is also commonly found in many construction materials such as concrete and mortar. The silica is broken into very fine dust during many common tasks such as cutting, drilling and grinding. It is often called silica dust

Non-silica dust – There are a number of construction products where silica is either not found or present in very low amounts. The most common ones include gypsum, cement, limestone, marble and dolomite. This dust is also mixed with silica dust when cutting things like bricks. 

Wood is widely used in construction and is found in two main forms; softwood and hardwood. Wood-based products are also commonly used including MDF and chipboard. 

Recent HSE research has estimated that silica may be responsible for the deaths of over 500 people each year who have worked in construction. HSE also estimates that around 4,000 people die every year from COPD linked to work. Construction workers are one of the at-risk groups within this because of the dust that they breathe. 

Many construction tasks create dust. High dust levels are caused by one of more the following: 

Equipment – using high energy tools, such as cut-off saws, grinders, wall chasers and grit blasters produce a lot of dust in a very short time. 

Work method – dry sweeping can make a lot of dust when compared to vacuuming or wet brushing 

Work area – the more enclosed a space, the more the dust will build up 

Time – the longer you work the more dust there will be 

Other ways dust can be created in any workplace are things like dry sweeping of floors or surfaces, transfer of powders from one container to another, unloading or loading of lorries, food preparation to name a few. 

Anyone who breathes in these dusts can do damage to the lungs and airways. The main dust related diseases affecting construction workers are: 

  • Lung cancer
  • Silicosis
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD)
  • Asthma

While some lung diseases like advanced silicosis can come on quite quickly, most take a long time. Often this is over years. They happen because during this time regularly breathing even small amounts of dust adds up and damages the lungs and airways. Unfortunately, by the time you notice the damage is often done and it is more difficult to treat. 

To control dust, you need to look at ways of limiting the amount of dust produced rather than just supplying masks. Some things you can do to reduce dust are: 

  • Use the right size of building materials so less cutting or preparation is needed
  • Use a less powerful tool
  • Or by using a different method of work altogether like using a nail gun to direct fasten cable trays instead of drilling holes first

Even if you can stop some of the dust this way you may need to do other work that could still produce high amounts of dust. In these cases, the most important thing is to stop the dust getting into the air. There are two main ways of doing this which both give very good results are the use of water and vacuum extraction. 

Water can be used to damp down dust clouds. However, it needs to be used correctly. This means enough water for the whole time that the work is being done. Just wetting an area of ground before cutting does not work. Care needs to be taken if the contaminated water could cause addition risks. 

Vacuum Extraction uses specially designed tools can be fitted with an industrial vacuum unit that sucks the dust away as it is being created and stores it until emptied. This is used in many industries from construction to food preparation. 

Sometimes people think that if there is dust, you simply wear a mask. Masks and respirators are effective but in high risk tasks the amount of dust can be significant and the mask cannot give the amount of protection needed as the filter in a mask can quickly become clogged and stop working.

Also, a mask only protects the person wearing it. Anyone else in the area could still be at risk from the dust if they do not wear a mask as well. 

There are many common mistakes that people make with masks. These include choosing the wrong type, not being face fit tested or not wearing them properly. 

As already mentioned the main aim is to stop the dust getting into the air in the first place. If you do just rely on a mask for high risk tasks you may be asked to justify why. 

Just because you work outside you still need to reduce and protect against dust. While the wind will have some effect on the level of dust many tasks involve the person working close to the part of a tool where the dust is being made. With very dusty tasks this means that they can still breathe a lot of harmful dust.