How can dust harm health?
- Breathing dust into the lungs
Inhaling dust can create breathing problems. The health effects of breathing in dust can take many years to develop.
Inhalable dust is visible to the naked eye. This dust may consist of larger or heavier particles that tend to get trapped in the nose, mouth, throat or upper respiratory tract where they can cause damage. Respirable dust is fine enough to be invisible to the naked eye and can be breathed deeply into the lungs and cause harm.
Some dust can become trapped in the mucus that lines the respiratory tract. This mucus tends to be either spat out or swallowed. Inhaled dusts can get into the digestive tract, where they can cause local effects such as gastrointestinal tract irritation. Alternatively, they can enter the bloodstream and produce effects in other organs and tissues.
Dust particles produced during the cutting, grinding and drilling of materials can cause eye damage or irritation. Some dusts may also cause harm to eyes due to their chemical nature.
Some dust can cause ulceration of the skin and irritation. Skin can be harmed by dusts such as epoxy resins, rubber processing chemicals, wood dust and fibreglass and can lead to dermatitis.
What types of dust are the most hazardous?
Not all dusts are the same. Some dusts are more harmful than others. Excessive exposure to some types of dust has been linked to the development of particular health problems, such as lung cancer or asthma. The development of occupational disease can mean some workers experience life altering and in some cases premature life-ending illness. You can find more specific guidance on hazardous types of dust which are common in some industries, such as:
What must an employer do to protect people from being exposed to dust created by their work?
The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 places general duties on employers to ensure that people are not exposed to unnecessary risks to their health or safety arising from the employer’s work activities. Dust in the workplace provides general principles of protection from dust.
In addition, the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) 2002 Regulations were established to protect workers from exposure to hazardous materials. (Asbestos and lead are not covered by COSHH as they have their own separate regulations). COSHH helps employers control risks by providing a framework underpinned by a risk assessment. Any steps to control exposure to dust should be proportionate to the actual risk to health.
More information can be found on assessing and controlling risks of exposure to dust in:
See also COSHH and your industry for further information on dust.
COSHH essentials sets out basic advice on what to do to control exposure to hazardous substances, including dust in the workplace. First check the direct advice sheets listed by industry to see if there are any direct advice sheets for dust-related tasks or processes in your industry. If your industry is not listed don't worry, you can use our e-tool to identify which generic control guidance sheets are appropriate for dust control.
What are the main principles of controlling dust in the workplace?
COSHH Regulation 7(7) Schedule 2A ‘Principles of good practice for the control of exposure to substances hazardous to health’ – provides more detail and is summarised below:
- Design and operate processes and activities to minimise emission, release and spread of substances hazardous to health.
- Take into account all relevant routes of exposure - inhalation, skin absorption and ingestion - when developing control measures.
- Control exposure by measures that are proportionate to the health risk.
- Choose the most effective and reliable control options which minimise the escape and spread of substances hazardous to health.
- Where adequate control of exposure cannot be achieved by other means, provide, in combination with other control measures, suitable personal protective equipment.
- Check and review regularly all elements of control measures for their continuing effectiveness.
- Inform and train all employees on the hazards and risks from the substances with which they work and the use of control measures developed to minimise the risks.
- Ensure that the introduction of control measures does not increase the overall risk to health and safety.
For more information see Principles of good control practice.
Is there a specific amount of dust that can be hazardous to health?
No, it depends on the dust in question - for some dusts there are specific Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs) which provide a guide for employers to help them control exposure. For example, silica dust, (which is a found in rocks, sand, clay, bricks, concrete, etc) is particularly hazardous and has a WEL of 0.1mg/m. This means that during an 8 hour period, a worker should not inhale more than the amount shown below.
For other dusts there may not be a WEL, but the dust may still be a substance hazardous to health. A dust is considered to be a substance hazardous to health under COSHH if it is present at a concentration in air equal or greater than 10mg/m3 (for inhalable dust) or 4mg/m3 (for respirable dust) as a substance hazardous to health.
These concentrations are NOT workplace or exposure limits or safe working limits - they are a trigger to help inform whether a dust is subject to the COSHH Regulations.
There is a growing consensus in the occupational health/hygiene community that exposure to dust at levels below the concentrations outlined above is a risk to the health of employees and other people affected by work activity. So it is important to ensure that any exposure to dust is kept as low as possible.
How do I train employees working with dust?
Provide information, training and instruction for employees who work with dust. This includes cleaning and maintenance staff. Employees need to understand the outcome of your risk assessment and what this means for them. Keep employees informed about planned future changes in processes or substances used. See also Training for employees working with substances hazardous to health.
Do I need to consult my workforce on health and safety issues?
Yes, employers must also consult employees on health and safety issues, either directly or through a safety representative that is either elected by the workforce or appointed by a trade union. See also Consulting and involving your workers.
Other sources of advice and information can be found from: