Toxic Dust and Behavioral Change

Dust is tiny, dry airborne particles that are produced when materials are cut, drilled, demolished, sanded, or shovelled. This means many work activities can create dust. Dust is not always an obvious health hazard as the particles which cause the most damage are often invisible to the naked eye and the health effects of exposure can take many years to develop. 

How can dust be harmful? 

There are various problems which workers could face due to breathing, inhaling, swallowing or even having contact with dust. Breathing and inhaling dust into the lungs can create respiratory problems, swallowing and inhaling dust can enter the digestive tract causing gastrointestinal tract irritation. Alternatively, causing damage to various organs and tissues due to entering the bloodstream. In terms of contact, if dust particles enter the eye, it can cause damage and irritation and contact with skin could cause the ulcertaion of the skin, irritation, and dermatitis. Some dust present more of a hazard than others, including Asbestos, Flour, Grain, Silica (dust from rocks, sand, clay, bricks, concrete, etc) and wood.

Legislation 

Legislation is in place to ensure there are general duties on employers to protect employees from dust in the workplace in addition to more specific requirements to control more hazardous dusts such as crystalline silica.

How to control dust in your workplace: 

·        Minimize emission, release and spread of substances hazardous to health.

·        Consider routes of exposure – inhalation, skin absorption and ingestion – when developing control measures.

·        Choose effective and reliable control measures to minimize the escape and spread of dust, proportionate to the health risk.

·        Provide suitable personal protective equipment where necessary.

·        Check and review effectiveness of control measures.

·        Inform and train all employees on the hazards and controls in place – including cleaning and maintenance staff. 

Shaping new behaviors

Behavioral change strategies are focused on employers becoming mindful of their employee’s actions, understanding the impacts and ‘nudging’ a change to eventually transform workplace habits. First recognized as a successful business strategy in the late 1980s, such strategies are now implemented across a range of sectors, often leading to improvements in occupational health and safety processes, productivity and finances. Monitoring employee health has gained precedence as a key factor for shaping health and safety strategies, increasing employee engagement, and ensuring individuals are adhering to the correct processes.

The pros and cons

To influence employers to monitor the workforces’ exposure to noise, dust, and vibration a clear outcome is needed as justification for enforcing the new behavior and changing habits. The tangible advantages include a reduction in workplace absenteeism, reduced risks of debilitating illnesses, improved communication and employee engagement as well as enhancing productivity. Despite clear advantages, many employers remain skeptical about embracing new technologies and workplace practices and there is the belief that it may draw attention and resources away from safety-critical issues. It is also often thought that the duties of the management will be shifting onto individual employees, potentially demotivating and stressing individuals who are not keen to have such a responsibility. Despite this belief, monitoring safe behaviors and treating health like safety will eventually become a universal responsibility and so employers and employees alike must embrace this – the approach is crucial.

Case studies 

Stories of success are a key factor in increasing confidence. A manufacturing company with 1,400 members of staff introduced a behavioral safety program and gained: Improved productivity and working days lost due to injury per year dropped from 550 to 301 in four years. Improved public image, managers presented their successes at major conferences. Staff development including better communication, IT skills, and greater confidence.

A behavioral safety program at a petrochemicals plant delivered positive results with a  saving of over $300K per year through early detection and repair of leaks. Major reductions in operating costs as workers became more confident about identifying and dealing with problems alongside a 32% reduction in insurance premiums.

Behavioral Change 

Change can be daunting but introducing new strategies in the workplace and encouraging a shift in behavior doesn’t need to be challenging. New monitoring solutions represent a change, making it easier for employees to understand. The latest solutions available allow for real-time monitoring, enabling individuals to capture their own quantitative data, becoming an occupational hygienist in their own right. Motivation and job satisfaction could actually increase. By implementing clear health and safety strategies and maintaining these solutions, behaviors will naturally change, resulting in improved employee motivation, productivity and business costs.

 

Tim Turney, Global Marketing Manager, Casella

This article was first published in the SHP Magazine