Grain dust is the dust produced from the harvesting, drying, handling, storage or processing of barley, wheat, oats, maize or rye and includes any contaminants or additives within the dust (eg. bacteria, endotoxin, fungal spores, insects and insect debris, pesticide residues).
Health risks are also likely to arise from exposure to dusts produced by other types of grain, eg. rice, sorghum, pulses (such as soya bean), peas and various oilseeds (such as rapeseed).
Respiratory disease (a disease affecting our lungs and breathing tubes) is a major occupational health risk, for example, in agriculture the number of occupational asthma cases is double the national average. Studies have shown that workers exposures to grain dust can be substantial.
Workers with occupational respiratory disease may develop permanent breathing problems, becoming disabled, and unable to work. This not only affects individual workers, but has wider cost implications for employers and the grain industry as a whole.
The law requires employers to adequately control exposure to materials in the workplace that cause ill health. This includes controlling exposure to grain dust. Employers and employees need to comply with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (as amended) (COSHH). They require employers to:
Vast quantities of grains are imported, exported, produced and used in Britain. Grains pass through a large number of handling operations and the generation of dust is therefore widespread.
Processes that create grain dust include:
Our respiratory or breathing system includes the mouth, nose, lungs and the tubes that connect them. Occupational respiratory disease is a medical term used to describe diseases caused by, or made worse by, something you breathe in while at work, eg grain dust.
Eye and skin irritation are frequent reactions to grain dust exposure and include symptoms such as:
The possible ill health outcomes are:
Some occupational respiratory diseases affect the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs (our airways). Occupational asthma is an example of this sort of problem. It is caused by an allergy to something in the workplace, eg grain dust. This type of allergy usually takes several months or even years to develop, and may also cause eye and nasal symptoms at work.
Occupational asthma causes the airways to swell and tighten; leading to symptoms of coughing, wheezing, chest tightness or breathlessness at or after work. If these symptoms are better on non-work days (like weekends, rest days or holidays) then occupational asthma needs to be strongly considered.
As well as causing asthma, working with grain dusts can also worsen symptoms in people who already have asthma. It is much better to prevent respiratory disease by using good working practices.
If you suspect you may have a respiratory problem, report your work-related symptoms to your employer. Grain dust is a respiratory sensitiser (asthmagen) and it is essential that health surveillance is undertaken to enquire positively about any early symptoms of ill health. Employers have a legal duty to carry out health surveillance that is based on risk under COSHH.
The objectives of health surveillance are to:
Decisions on the appropriate form of health surveillance may require the advice of an occupational health professional. The precise form of health surveillance will depend on the particular circumstances of exposure (level, frequency and duration) identified by the risk assessment.
HSE guidance EH66 on grain dust provides further information on health surveillance.
HSE have summarised the evidence about respiratory disease caused by exposure to grain dust in research report ‘Risks to respiratory health in the UK grain industry’.
If you cannot avoid exposure to grain dust then you must put in place appropriate control measures including one or more of the following: