Occupational Exposure to Dust

Occupational exposure to dust, even at low doses, is a risk to workers’ health and significantly associated with respiratory symptoms. Not all dusts are the same. Most large air-borne particles or dust, fall to the ground and never get into the mouth or nose. Most of the inhalable types get trapped along the throat and nasal passages and are either brought back up or swallowed. However, in large enough quantities, some of the dust can enter the lungs and can cause damage.

Standard setting governmental and scientific organizations have recognized this issue. OSHA has a Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for Total Particulates of 15 milligrams per cubic meter of air (mg/m3) and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) has a Threshold Limit Value (TLV) of 10 mg/m3. Small respirable particles, between 1 to 10 microns can reach the lungs and are inhaled into the alveoli. This can reduce the capacity of the lungs and blood to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide during the process of breathing in and breathing out.  OSHA has a PEL for Respirable Particulates of 10 mg/m3 and the ACGIH has a TLV of 3 mg/m3.

As stated in an article published by the National Institute of Health, “The initial effects of dust on the lungs are characterized by reversible respiratory symptoms and worsened lung function . Occupational dust exposure can induce pulmonary inflammatory cascades and structural damage, leading to decreased lung function and other dust-related lung diseases, including sinus disease, respiratory irritation, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is globally recognized as a serious public health problem.”

Breathing certain kinds of dust can be much more harmful than ordinary total or respirable particulates. For example, exposure to asbestos can cause asbestosis, cotton dust can cause bissinosis, respirable crystalline silica can cause silicosis, and coal dust can cause black lung. These types of dust can cause respiratory illness when exposed in much smaller amounts, some by a factor of one-thousandth. The OSHA PEL for respirable crystalline silica is 5 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) as compared to respirable particulates of 5 milligrams per cubic meter.

If dust is a concern at a facility, the following steps should be taken:

  • Identify the type of dust. 
  • Conduct air sampling to determine the quantify of dusts inhaled.
  • Use engineering controls such as permanent of portable local exhaust ventilation.
  • Use wet methods and dampen areas before dust collection.
  • Provide training in the hazards, necessary procedures, and the proper use of personal protective equipment.
  • Medically monitor employees
  • Follow OSHA and other available standards pertaining to the identified dust. 

Occupational exposure to dust, even ordinary dust in large enough quantities, should be investigated and necessary steps taken to control it.

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