The major dangers of dust in manufacturing

For the first time in 45 years, OSHA is implementing new regulation to try to help protect the over 2 million workers who are exposed to silica dust in the course of their job.

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When you hear about workers' comp claims, do you automatically think of people getting hurt by falling? Or maybe you think of injuries from equipment. These are both certainly scary realities, especially in the manufacturing industry. But our experience in risk management reflects the fact that illness caused by dust inhalation is just as serious.

If you're serious about protecting the health and safety of your workers, you have to get up-to-speed on dust exposure.   

Dust exposure is inherent in manufacturing and many workers are exposed every single day. Inhaling this dust can cause chronic illnesses. Dust can damage the lung tissue and lead to "dusty lungs" - the common term for Pneumoconiosis - which is permanent lung damage.

Silica is in materials like concrete and stone. When construction workers cut these silica-laden materials, they're exposed to the dust.

When it comes to manufacturing, there are two other types of dust that can cause major health issues for workers - hard metal lung disease and chronic beryllium disease.

Hard metal lung disease is related to the use of cobalt.

This disease is prevalent in operations using "hard metal", or cemented tungsten carbide, which contains cobalt. You might not think this applies to you if you're not manufacturing high-speed cutting, drilling, grinding or polishing tools. But, it's also a risk for operations that use these tools.       

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 1 million workers are exposed to cobalt during hard metal production and processing. Exposure can even happen while sharpening tools.

Chronic beryllium disease is still common despite current regulations.

Tons of every day products, like computers and golf clubs, contain beryllium. This metal is common - which perhaps makes it an even more serious issue for manufacturing workers.

Workplace safety regulations for beryllium have responded to the risks posed by this type of dust. The more severe and sudden effects on workers are less common now, thanks to these regulations. But still, the risk remains and is often seen in chronic conditions that develop over time and gradually can result in some very serious health problems.

Once lung fibrosis develops, it can get worse, even if you're no longer exposed to the source.

Even if your particular operation has less risk of the hard metal or beryllium exposure, any dust can be dangerous for workers. It sounds simple, but you might be surprised how often insurance professionals see casual use of protective equipment. 

We've seen three things that can really make a difference:

First, enforce the use of protective equipment, including masks and respirators, eye protection, and disposable clothing, including on shoes, heads and hands. This includes leaving masks and respirators on until clothes are off and sealed away.  

Second, you have to have a plan for dust containment and removal. This includes dust removed from the workplace and dust on employees' disposable clothing. Make sure clothes are removed and placed in sealed containers before transporting outside.

And finally, focus on education. Make sure training and resource materials are available to employees at all times, and hold regular safety meetings for your employees.

Dust exposure needs to be a priority in the manufacturing industry. Many operations take this seriously and have positive results - healthier workers and lower workers' comp insurance costs. 

If you want more on managing risk in metal manufacturing, State Auto has an infographic with detail and tips.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.