The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) launched a month-long campaign in June 2022 to help tackle respiratory risks and occupational lung disease arising from employment. It formed part of a wider "Dust Kills" campaign from the HSE which aims to (1) raise awareness of the dangers of dust exposure and to provide information on how to reduce those risks; and (2) target industries where there is a potential for high levels of dust. The June campaign included spot checks by HSE inspectors to ensure workers are properly protected. Work sites of all types and sizes were included.
The primary focus was on construction, wood working and food manufacturing industries. Whilst construction-type industries are more readily associated with risk - traditionally, food manufacturing might not be thought of as a likely sector for dust exposure. However, flour grain is the second highest causal agent for occupational asthma. It is perhaps no surprise then that occupational asthma makes up 33% of food industry compensation claims.
Risks in the food industry
There are many food industries where exposure to hazardous substances – including dust - might occur. Workers involved in processes such as milling, baking, malting, processing fish and coopering are at the most significant risk. Hazardous substances might include flour dust, grain, dusts from protein-containing ingredients, spices, cleaning and disinfectant products or chemicals and enzymes. In particular, flour dust and grains can, when inhaled, cause what is colloquially referred to as "baker's asthma." Rhinitis and conjunctivitis can also be caused by exposure to food-related dusts.
How businesses can control the risks
The HSE recommends various ways to protect workers under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations ("COSHH"). They recommend, firstly, carrying out adequate risk assessments for the work carried out and for each hazardous substance workers may be exposed to. Then businesses should put in place all reasonably practicable measures to prevent such exposure. Working with most types of dust will also likely require appropriate ventilation and/or extraction and respiratory protective equipment, such as face-fitted masks.
A specific example of mitigating risk in the baking industry would be using low-dust flours which either have oil ingredients to reduce the level of dust given off or have been refined to remove finer flour particles. Low-dust flours will reduce airborne dust breathed in by workers but used in conjunction with careful handling techniques, respiratory protective equipment and dust extraction tools, the risks can be sufficiently reduced to comply with the COSHH regulations.
The HSE also recommends businesses carry out monitoring and health surveillance to ensure they are adequately protecting their workers' health. The idea behind health surveillance is to allow for early detection of ill health so that corrective action can be taken or the person treated if appropriate. The degree of health surveillance required will depend on the risk posed but some examples include questionnaires issued to the workforce or offering lung function tests.