Dust at Work: Dealing With Dust Allergies in the Workplace
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Dust At Work: Managing Dust Allergies in the Workplace

written by: bjlbyron • edited by: Tania Cowling • updated: 5/19/2011

Coughing and sneezing all the time at work? You may be one of the many individuals who suffer due to dust allergies in the workplace. This article describes this common problem, and presents advice regarding how you can minimize your exposure to dust at work.

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    The Problem of Dust in the Workplace

    Many of us work 40 hours or more at a single work location. Indeed, most working people spend more time at work than at any location outside the home. This extensive time at work, however, often poses a chronic allergy problem to those who are allergic to dust, as many work environments have a lot of dust. Workers who are most likely to be exposed to high levels of dust include:

    • Woodworkers and carpenters (fine wood dust)
    • Construction workers (wood, cement, gypsum board, and asbestos dusts)
    • Bakers (flour dust)
    • Farmers (grain, pollen, cotton, and animal dusts)
    • Textile workers (fabric and cotton dusts)
    • Miners and quarry workers (coal, dirt, and rock dusts)

    However, it is important to note that dust allergy problems are not limited to only these occupations, as workers in virtually all environments may be routinely exposed to high levels of dust. (For example, although they may seem rather innocuous, many office-building environments have been found to have dust problems that affect the health of some employees.)

    The major health problems that dust causes to those who are sensitive are asthma and bronchitis (airway inflammation), which affects the entire respiratory system from the nose to the lungs. These conditions cause wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing, among other symptoms.

    Further, those who are exposed for several years to dust derived from living sources (for example, farmers who are exposed to hay and pollen dust) are susceptible to developing a condition called organic dust toxic syndrome. In addition to the wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing symptoms that asthma sufferers experience, those with organic dust toxic syndrome may also develop headaches, flu-like symptoms, high fever, chills, body aches, and chest tightness. Organic dust toxic syndrome symptoms usually disappear a day or two after the sufferer is removed from the toxic work environment.

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    What You Can Do to Minimize Your Exposure to Dust at Work

    If you believe that you are being exposed to too much dust at work, you should inform your employer of the problem right away. Your employer should work with you to find a satisfactory remedy that works for both parties. You should also demand that your employer provide free regular and thorough health checkups that are designed to ensure that each employee's respiratory health is stable, and to ensure that any illness is detected when it first arises, regardless of whether its symptoms are apparent to the inflicted individual.

    Specific steps that you can take to reduce your exposure to dust at work are dependent on the nature of your work and work environment. If you work in an office environment, for example, you should routinely clean the surface of your desk and keep your work area free, or mostly free, of paper and other materials that gather dust. You also may wish to consider moving your work station from one location of a building to another, if feasible.

    If there is carpet in your office, you may also request that it be regularly vacuumed (a couple of times per week is ideal) and washed, because carpet--if not properly cleaned--can quickly become a dust-rich environment. Ideally, vacuuming should be performed with a vacuum that is equipped with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, which traps almost 100% of all particulates. You may also ask your company to install an improved ventilation system that adequately removes dust allergens from the air, and ideally one that is fitted with a HEPA filter.

    If you spend much time working with flour (which is the second most common source of work-related dust), follow these important recommendations:

    • Avoid spilling flour and quickly clean up any spills
    • Do not spread flour by hand; instead, use appropriate tools when performing this task
    • Clean up flour dust by vacuum instead of brushing it with a whisk broom
    • Add flour to mixers slowly to avoid raising any dust
    • Mix flour and water slowly (especially at first)

    If you work with or are otherwise exposed at work to natural materials such as wood, coal, dirt, rock, and pollen, you may wish to wear special clothing designed to limit dust exposure and a good-quality air mask with a filter that traps virtually all particulates, is comfortable to wear, and does not significantly impair breathing. Further, you should also consider leaving your work clothes at work and not bringing them home with you. Special washing machines that are designed to eliminate virtually all dust from clothing are commercially available (typical household machines are not adept at removing all dust). You should bring these machines to your employer's attention and request that some be purchased and made available to employees for clothes-washing purposes.

    Finally, no matter what field you work in, if you feel that your work environment is too dusty, it is wise to remove yourself as much as possible from that environment. Therefore, regularly eat lunch away from work and take long walks away from the dust source during break periods.

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    References

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, A New Method to Clean Dust From Soiled Work Clothes: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/pubs/pdfs/tn509.pdf

    Department of Commerce (Australia), Controlling Wood Dust Hazards At Work: http://www.commerce.wa.gov.au/worksafe/PDF/Guidance_notes/Guide_wood_dust.pdf

    Environmental Health Perspectives, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Dangers in the Dust: http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/docs/1996/104-1/focusdust.html

    Health and Safety Executive (U.K.), Flour Dust At Work Can Cause Asthma: http://www.hse.gov.uk/press/2004/e04059.htm

    Workplace Safety Advice, Danger of Dust in the Workplace: http://www.workplacesafetyadvice.co.uk/dangers-of-dust-in-the-workplace.html

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