Spectrum Guides: Dust Dangers

When dust is fine and invisible to the naked eye, it’s easy to overlook the dangers and harmful effects it can have, however, dust in the workplace can be extremely dangerous and have damaging effects on those exposed to it. 

For many industries, work processes often involve creating a large amount of dust in the immediate environment. Fine airborne dust can often go unnoticed, understandably, this puts those working in environments that create a lot of dust, at risk in their workplace.  

Exposure to dust in the workplace can cause Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a long-term illness which causes damage to the lungs and breathing tubes, resulting in difficulty breathing. 

It’s reported by HSE that Silica dust is the suspected cause of over 500 deaths a year in the construction industry, whilst 4,000 die each year due to COPD linked to the workplace.

With this being said, these dusts can be put into two categories – respirable dust and inhalable dust, to increase understanding of dust types and the effects they can have.

Respirable dust particles are responsible for travelling deep into the lungs and causing serious health effects for those exposed to them. A respirable dust particle can be identified as being smaller than 10 µm. 

Inhalable dust is made up of larger particles that can be breathed in, these particles are visible to the naked eye and can be inhaled through the throat and nose. Dust particles smaller than 100 µm make up inhalable dust. 

Where is dust most commonly a problem? 

Dust exposure is often experienced in construction, demolition, woodworking, mining, quarrying, manufacturing and warehousing. Some of the tasks that take place in these industries (cutting, sawing, demolishing, dry sweeping and use of power tools) can cause dust to arise.

Within these industries, the work involved can create toxic and dangerous dusts such as silica, wood, asbestos and coal dust. Often this means that the workplace environment becomes more dangerous to work in, particularly when these dusts are too fine to be seen. There are also low toxicity dusts which can be created from working on materials such as limestone, marble and graphite. It’s important to acknowledge that although low in toxicity, these dusts are still dangerous when exposed too for longer periods of time and at high levels of exposure, which makes it crucial for Workplace Exposure Limits (WEL), Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) and adherence to COSHH guidelines within the workplace. 

types of dust

Silica – Silica is a natural substance found in rocks, clay, and sand, it forms a major part of construction materials. Dust from silica is often created from cutting, drilling, grinding, and polishing and often goes unnoticed due to being a fine dust, however, can get into lungs and cause harm. Silica dust has a WEL of 0.1mg/m3 based on an 8 hour time-weighted average. The exposure should be reduced as much as possible and below the WEL.  

Wood – Dust from wood can cause health issues such as asthma and respiratory issues. Although difficult to confirm a link to dust exposure, due to the length of time it takes to develop, hardwood has been suggested to cause lung cancer. A Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL) is enforced for both softwood (3mg/m3) and hardwood (5mg/m3) which must not be exceeded to ensure safety of workers is prioritised. 

Coal Dust – Coal dust is created from the act of crushing, grinding, or pulverising of coal and is created in a range of workplaces and industries including mining and transportation. COPD can be a result of exposure to coal dust. The WEL for coal dust is 1.5 mg/m3 at underground and surface coal mines. 

Low-Toxicity Dusts – These are dusts with a lower toxicity and are created from working on or with materials containing little or no silica such as, calcium carbonate – a major constituent of limestone and marble and silicon carbide, gypsum and aluminium oxide. Although not as toxic as some other dusts, these dusts can be harmful if exposure is for a long time and dependent on the amount. 

Dust issues on site can be managed by employers following COSHH and WEL guidelines to protect on-site workers. Although completely removing exposure to dust may not be possible, reducing exposure to airborne particles can help to create a healthier work environment and reduce potential risks from dust.

what can dust particles really do?

How dust causes harm depends on the size of the particle. Fine, invisible (respirable) dust is often considered the most dangerous as it enters deep into the lungs and can cause harm. Once on the lungs, the most common health issues can include asthma and in more extreme cases, lung cancer, although, this can take years to develop, as it often goes unnoticed. Consequently, this is often why the dangers of dust are overlooked as health issues may only occur much later down the line.

Larger particles (inhalable dust) can also often be unknowingly swallowed, as they are larger in size they can travel into the mouth, nose and throat which can cause issues within the digestive tract and potentially enter the bloodstream. Some cases of dust exposure can affect skin, causing irritation and some more serious effects include the formation of ulcers and dermatitis. Ensuring Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is worn could also reduce the risks of dust meeting the eyes and causing irritation and potentially harm.

Often, the dangers of dust can go unnoticed for a long time, particularly when symptoms can take years to develop or there may lack of awareness of dust in the immediate environment due to the size of the particles. It’s essential to reduce dust in the workplace where possible and ensure methods are in place to control dust. Although equipment is available such as Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE), its advised employers take further action and adhere to COSHH Regulations and WEL’s to reduce and control the airborne dust in workplaces. 

how to control dust on-site

water-based dust suppression

A common solution to controlling dust on sites is the use of water. Water can be used as an effective tool to keep dust grounded, therefore, reducing dust exposure risks. 

Water-based dust suppression through misting/fogging equipment is a common approach, the nozzles produce a finely atomised mist of water that captures the dust and brings it to the ground. With many solutions available, dust suppression equipment can be mobile or fixed on-site depending on the requirements and individual needs. 

Water-based suppression can also be supported by the addition of additives, such as dust suppression additives, which can adhere to airborne dust and bring it to the ground. Dust suppression additives provide a stronger solution than water-based suppression alone, keeping dust grounded and the air clear.

Rotary Atomiser PRO misting system

Non-water-based dust suppression

StaticAir Findures


StaticAir PMX


There is also a lesser known application of dust suppression that involves a non-water-based solution. These solutions, such as the range offered by StaticAir, use electrostatic technology to control dust in both indoor and outdoor areas. These systems provide an eco-friendly, sustainable solution to dust suppression, with a very low energy requirement, minimal maintenance, and a noise-free solution to reduce disturbance. They reduce all types of fine dust including exhaust fumes, building materials and metallic substance. 

The StaticAir air pollution and dust solution, can be deployed in a range of industries and environments, with a variety of applications suited to each individual environment. 

The process of dust suppression can benefit industries with more than just controlling dust, but also improving the workplace with:

  • Improved visibility 
  • Removal of unpleasant odour 
  • Reduced maintenance and cleaning costs 
  • Reduced health risks 
  • Creating a happier, healthier working environment

establishing on-site dust issues

In order to understand the effects workplace dust may be having or the levels of dust in the workplace that employees are exposed to, dust assessments can be undertaken on sites. Occupational exposure monitoring can take place to analyse and assess the levels of dust exposure and then implement control measures within the workplace. Occupational Exposure Monitoring is completed in-line with COSHH Regulations (2002) and can be adapted to a site-specific basis and used to demonstrate if site exposure limits are below Workplace Exposure Limits (WEL). Other assessments are available such as, Personal Exposure Monitoring which can assess and control inhalable dust and respirable crystalline silica exposure within the construction and mineral processing industries. Site boundary monitoring can also be used to assess potential health impacts of dust on sites. Boundary Monitor – EnviroGuard – provides real-time measurements of site conditions, monitoring dust and airborne particles, noise, vibration pH levels and gases. These assessments can be used to ensure sites are providing a safe working environment and protecting the health of employees. 

Dust is one of the main hazards we deal, offering dust assessments, monitoring and dust suppression systems suited to individual site needs and levels of exposure. You can get in touch with our team to find out more or how we can help you control hazardous workplace dust.

Phone: 01905 362100
Email: sales@airspectrum.com