HSE have updated their guidance on selecting and using dust masks and can provide a helpful card which can then assist your staff in ensuring they get a good fit and the protection they need against dust. Many of us use dust masks everyday and it’s worth a recap on what you should expect of your RPE, how to make the best use of it and where you make mistakes which result in unnecessary exposures to the substance you’re hoping to protect yourself from. If you’re looking for advice specific to coronavirus / COVID-19 please see this article: Coronavirus face masks: are they effective?
Selecting and using dust masks
I’m glad to say that things have changed for the better over the past 10 or so years. I visit a lot of businesses when carrying out air monitoring or just through routine support visits under our Safety~net scheme and most clients are getting it right. I think this is down to better education, a higher level of interest and the face fit requirements penetrating ever further through our industry and construction clients. Selecting and using dust masks often isn’t the problem.
However, there is one glaring error which I often see… not keeping the mask in a clean bag or container when it’s not in use. It’s surprisingly common to work throughout your morning wearing a dust mask only to leave it on a bench or somewhere similar whilst you take a short break. You then return, put it on and get a whole days worth of exposure in one breath because you didn’t put it back in a bag.
Take the example of RCS (respirable crystalline silica), the image below shows how much the limit is as an amount we can all visualise. You don’t need a lot of dust in your mask to reach that limit and put your life at risk over the long term, there are thousands of deaths every year despite all of our best efforts and this is likely a significant contributory factor.
We’d also suggest a quick and simple test each time you put the mask on by breathing out a feeling for any signs of leakage around the nose or chin, if you have safety glasses on you also might get steaming of the lenses – this is a sign your fit could be better and needs to be adjusted.
Finally here’s a recap on what type of dust mask you should be wearing. Some manufacturers such as Alpha Solway are even colour coding their masks to enable you to quickly tell if all your staff are wearing the correct rating – a great idea in our opinion. Each mask will be CE marked and will show its compliance to EN 149:2001,m if it doesn’t it’s not worth wearing so please check that first. Some suppliers will sell ‘nuisance dust masks’ which don’t these requirements, they’re not what you need and so don’t buy them.
There are three levels of FFP (Filtering Face Piece) masks, 1, 2 and 3;
- FFP1 dust masks protect against low-level contaminants, 4x and are suitable for applications like hand sanding, drilling, and cutting.
- FFP2 Dust Masks protect against moderate levels of dust, as well as solid and liquid aerosols. FFP2 Dust Masks have a higher level of protection than FFP1 – FFP2 masks protect against materials and would be suitable for tasks such as plastering and powered sanding.
- FFP3 Dust Masks protect against higher levels of dust. They also protect against solid and liquid aerosols. FFP3 masks are suitable for protecting against hazardous dust such as RCS (respirable crystalline silica).
- But: have you thought about reducing the level of dust generated? Moving the work offsite where extraction can be used? Changing materials or design to reduce risks through less cutting? Changing dimensions of the build to eliminate the need for cutting blocks, bricks or paving?
Finally, if its a disposable mask you should dispose of it. Don’t take the chance of keeping on using the same mask for days and weeks when its might have become saturated with dust. It’s just not worth it, particularly when dealing with a higher level hazard like RCS.
Statistics on workplace ill-health
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE):
- There are currently approximately 12,000 deaths each year in the UK due to occupational respiratory diseases, over 70% of which are due to asbestos-related diseases or COPD;
- These are long latency diseases (they take a long time to develop following exposure to the agent that caused them) therefore current deaths reflect the impact of past working conditions;
- About 41,000 people who worked in the last year, and 147,000 who had ever worked currently have breathing or lung problems they thought were caused or made worse by work;
- Each year there are currently an estimated 18,000 new cases of breathing or lung problems caused or made worse by work.