Airborne hazards unmasked

They may be small, often invisible, but airborne contaminants in the workplace can be deadly. Angela Welsh reports. 

FUMES, dusts and other inhalable toxins are among the most dangerous of all workplace hazards. Managers and workers need to be aware, these toxins can cause asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asbestosis and cancers of the respiratory system, such as mesothelioma and lung cancer. 

Some of these conditions have swift consequences, while others have long latency periods. This makes it essential for managers of factories, workshops, warehouses – and any workplace where airborne hazards are at play – to minimise workers' exposure to dust and other particulates, fumes, gases and smoke. 

According to a recent Safe Work Australia report, approximately 39% of Australian workers are exposed to airborne hazards in the workplace. Occupations with the highest likelihoods of exposure to airborne hazards include technicians, trades workers and machine operators. 

The research data reveals 23% of Australian workers who reported exposure to airborne hazards were not supplied with controls for the conditions. An additional 22% only received one control for airborne hazards, while the rest reported that they had more than one control. 

Managers should take note, companies that fail to comply with set exposure limits can be hit with hefty fines.  

Don Brereton, Micronair Dust Control's MD, recommends periodic monitoring of air quality in a workplace to determine the level of contaminants workers are exposed to.  

"When dealing with dust, it is important to remove the dust closest to the source rather than letting the dust escape and dealing with it at that stage.

"When capturing dust particles, it is better to focus on the work zone – the 2 to 3 metres around the machine operator. 

"Another essential step is to change the air in the room, rather than just re-circulate it," Brereton told Manufacturers' Monthly.

"Devices such as particle size assessors can provide readings on the number of grams of airborne contaminants that exist per cubic metre of air in a work zone.

"Some of these devices also identify what types of particles are present. These measurements are useful in checking whether the concentration of particles in a work zone is over the limit," he said.

Employers responsible

David Morton, Fume and Dust Control's MD, said it is the employers' responsibility to supply a safe working environment for all employees and people visiting the site.  

"The manufacturer also has a responsibility to the local government (council) and the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA)," he added.

"Obviously the first step is to identify the hazard. This can be hard in some cases as quite often no two manufacturing processes are the same and there has to be an honest exchange of information between the client and ourselves which is always kept confidential," Morton told Manufacturers' Monthly

"Once we have identified the hazard, we look at putting controls in place, this can sometimes be as easy as putting a lid on an open container to contain the contaminant, changing the work method or materials, so that the operator and the environment is not affected," he explained.  

"When we have looked at all the options in consultation with our client we will make recommendations to control, filter or capture the airborne contaminant at source prior to the operator's breathing zone."

Morton explained that there are many quick and simple solutions on the market at the moment, from fume arms to dust collectors and scrubbers, all of which limit workers' exposure to airborne contaminants. 

One solution is to adopt a separation method that removes a complete spectrum of pollutants such as mists, vapours, gases, dusts and smoke, including superfine particles.

Paul Fowler, Dimac Tooling's MD, points out that the term 'fine dust' refers to the mass of all particles with a diameter below 10µm included in the total dust quantity. 

"Grinding machines with very high cooling lubricant pressures and corresponding rotation rates for instance can produce extremely small particles that are more like vapour than solid matter," Fowler told Manufacturers' Monthly.

"We are dealing with a molecule range with sizes of about 0.001µm. The admissible air pollution Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL) is 10mg/m³ for cooling lubricant vapours and aerosols with a flash point above 100°C that are emitted during metal processing," he said. 

"The same limiting value applies to processing machines with a minimum lubrication system. This exposure limit is two hundred times as high as the limit for outdoor air pollution," he added. 

Manufacturers should also be aware that Regulation 49 of the Workplace Exposure Standards for Airborne Contaminants requires any person conducting a business or undertaking to ensure that no person in their workplace is exposed to concentrations of airborne contaminants that exceed the standards for those substances. 

Exposure standards can be defined as exposure over an 8-hour period, a peak limitation or a short-term limit.
Penalties for violating this legislation are $6,000 for businesses owned by an individual and $30,000 for those governed by a corporate body. 

Violation of the legislation could also create vulnerability for potential litigation from employees in the future.