Dust: Why it’s an issue and what can be done about it

It's in the air we breathe
It's in the air we breathe

Keeping commercial and industrial environments running safely and efficiently means navigating a range of issues and dealing with threats on all scales to ‘business as usual’. Even those threats that are smaller in stature can have just as great an impact on productivity and staff wellbeing – and it doesn’t get much smaller than dust.

While dust is a major issue in commercial and industrial environments, both for the health of employees and the performance of equipment, it is increasingly unacceptable in today’s high-performance facilities. While physical concerns over product quality and environmental health are hard enough to achieve, external COSHH and regulatory requirements only build on the mounting pressure of having to maintain clean and healthy workplaces.

Respiratory issues

According to the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), exposure to dust can cause respiratory issues such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and even lung cancer. In addition, dust accumulation on machinery and equipment can cause malfunction or breakdown, resulting in costly repairs or replacement and lost productivity.

But why is dust such a problem in commercial and industrial environments in the first place? There are a number of factors at play. Firstly, the nature of many commercial and industrial processes such as cutting, grinding, and sanding produce a lot of dust, which can quickly accumulate in the air and on surfaces. Additionally, many commercial and industrial facilities have large open spaces, which can make it difficult to control the spread of dust.

Critically for the workforce, inhaling dust can cause a range of breathing problems with the full effects on an individual’s health sometimes taking many years to develop. Adding to the complexity of the issue are the different levels of dust. Inhalable dust is visible to the naked eye, it may consist of larger or heavier particles which tend to get trapped in the nose, mouth, throat or upper respiratory tract where they can then cause damage. Respirable dust, however, is fine enough to be invisible to the naked eye and can be breathed deeply into the lungs where the effects can be even more serious.

Further risks

There are also further risks to employee health from swallowing inhaled dust which can get into the digestive tract, leading to gastrointestinal tract irritation or organ and tissue damage if it reaches the bloodstream.

Some dust particles can also damage or irritate the eyes, either abrasively or chemically. While dusts such as epoxy resins, rubber processing chemicals, wood dust and fibreglass are a skin irritant and can lead to skin conditions such as dermatitis. With all of this to consider in relation to employee wellbeing alone, effective management of dust and particulate waste is essential in commercial and industrial spaces.

There are several types of dust extraction systems suitable for a wide range of production and manufacturing environments, including:

Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV)

LEV systems are designed to capture and remove dust at the source, such as from grinding, sanding, or welding. The system comprises a hood or nozzle that captures the dust, a duct that carries it to a central collection point, and a filter or cyclone that separates the dust from the air.

Dust Collection Systems

Dust collection systems are designed to collect dust from multiple sources, such as in a workshop or manufacturing plant. The system comprises a network of ducts that connect to each machine or area, a central collection point, and a filter or cyclone that separates the dust from the air.

Portable Dust Extractors

Portable dust extractors are designed to be moved around the workspace to capture dust from different sources. The system comprises a hose or nozzle that captures the dust, a motorised fan that creates suction, and a filter or cyclone that separates the dust from the air.

Today, there are also a variety of technologies available that can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of dust extraction, making it an even more powerful tool for combatting dust related issues of all natures, not just those relating to employee health and wellbeing.

High level of protection

One major development in dust extraction technology is the use of high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. HEPA filters are designed to capture even the smallest particles of dust, making them particularly effective for environments where dust is a major issue and ensuring the highest level of protection for staff.

Air cleaning through large-scale ventilation may seem like a primary option for many businesses, however on-tool extraction directly at the source could stand to drastically improve facilities. This involves the use of high vac systems to transport the waste to a centralised location for easy disposal, or to intermediate pre-separators for potential recycling, depending on the nature of the dust and other particulates extracted.

Damage to machinery

In addition to protecting the people within a business, a considerable benefit of on-tool extraction is the elimination of particles which could cause damage to machinery, therefore avoiding costly breakdowns and unplanned maintenance. Just as the accumulation of dust over time in an employee's system can lead to major health implications, the same can be said for a range of equipment which is exposed to the particles within the same environment, especially those which require effective air intake and expulsion in order to operate.

The risk of machinery and equipment overheating due to blocked ventilation from dust is of critical importance since dust can also be highly combustible. Due to its dry nature and ability to spread over large areas, equipment overheating and sparking could have devastating consequences. If there is enough combustible dust, mixed with air, then all it needs is a source of ignition to cause an explosion.

Explosions can cause loss of life and serious injuries as well as significant damage. Preventing releases of dangerous substances, which can create explosive atmospheres, and preventing sources of ignition are two widely used ways of reducing the risk. Using the correct equipment to remove dust particles from the working environment can help greatly in this, and the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR) place duties on employers to eliminate or control the risks from explosive atmospheres in the workplace.

COSHH states that the primary method of dust removal should be at its source, and a proper in-house cleaning schedule could actually reduce or eliminate the requirement for ATEX zoning for potentially combustible environments. That said, it is no wonder that leading companies in many industries are now adopting high vac solutions. These include aircraft manufacturers, automotive manufacturers, body shop repair firms, wind turbine manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, electronics manufacturers, and the food industry.

Productivity

Finally, and while maybe not of the most importance to many, is the effect of dust build up on the appearance of a facility. Equipment, machinery and spaces covered in dust appear unclean, outdated and unprofessional – three things most businesses would actively avoid as perceptions from visiting customers or suppliers. Similarly, for employees, working in a space which is uncared for can lead to low staff morale, affecting productivity, as well as high staff turnover creating additional needs for recruitment and training which can slow down production and efficiency greatly. Appearance may not be everything but even within commercial environments, it has its role to play.

Dust is an issue for many reasons within commercial and industrial environments, however, the underpinning issue is one of safety and efficiency. Ensuring spaces are properly outfitted with the best dust extraction solutions is essential in safeguarding both the business and its people for the long term.

Ira Morris is Country Manager, Dustcontrol UK

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