20th May, 2020 Read time 6 minutes

What are the dangers of respirable dust and what can be done to prevent hazards?

Respirable dust is a danger that many workers face, and it can be present in different environments. Our article on the different activities that can expose the different types of respirable dust is a good place to start if you are unsure of how the dust come about.

Whilst you may be aware of where respirable dust comes from, you may be less aware of the danger’s exposure can present to workers. In this article, we focus on the effect respirable dust can have and have a look at different studies into what can be done to manage exposure, from PPE to environment management.

What dangers and diseases are caused by respirable dust?

Respirable dust like asbestos can cause a range of different respiratory diseases (Laney and Weissman, 2014)). In quarry environments respirable dust (specifically Silica) have been shown to cause silicosis and increase the risk of general lung infections. More long-term exposure can lead to the development of acute silicosis, which can cause death within months of contraction (Health and Safety Executive, 2020).

Amongst the literature looking at the effects of respirable dust exposure, there is a focus on the mining industry. The inherent lack of ventilation coupled with long working hours and lack of proper PPE during the mid to late 20th century means many now face ‘coal workers’ pneumoconiosis’ (CWP). Whilst legislation introduced in the 1970s did reduce the rate of the disease, recent data has shown a reversal in the trend (Leonard, et al 2016).

In terms of coal mining, the intake of respirable mind dust has been shown to cause both fibrotic and airflow diseases. The fibrotic diseases include CWO as mentioned above and Silicosis. Airflow diseases include Bronchitis, Emphysema and mineral dust airway disease (Colinet, 2010).

Some other, less obvious industries are also affected by the dangers of respirable dust. The study from Elms et al, (2004) looked at the health consequences that can arise from exposure to flour dust. Some of the issues found to occur included nasal and respiratory irritation with the potential for more serious incidents like asthma attacks or further development of pre-existing respiratory diseases (Elms, et al, 2004).

A look at some preventative techniques for minimising respirable dust exposure

As shown, several different dangerous conditions can occur when workers are exposed to respiratory dusts. The level and extent of the danger also varies depending on the type of dust present and the industry the hazard is present in. The dangers make preventative measures a must for those working in health and safety management and control.

Occupational dust exposure is a big problem for many industries and the use of PPE is an important means of control, however, some question the benefit of wearing masks to control the exposure to dusts.

The study from Takemura, et al (2008) looked at 178 workers across 15 factories where dust exposure was present. The workers were interviewed and their masks tested for leakage. The leakage deemed acceptable was 10% however the average leakage across the subjects was 24.3%. This indicates that the wearing of masks as a form of PPE may not be enough. Figure 1 is taken from the study and shows the different levels of mask leakage across the sample.

Figure 1: Levels of leakage in the different masks from Takemura, et al (2008)


The findings once analysed suggested that education was crucial when it came to encouraging workers to wear the masks properly. Overall, with proper education, the wearing of PPE masks was shown to at least help manage the exposure to respirable dusts. Ideally, as PPE continues to improve these findings could be improved over time alongside better education.

Another niche example of respirable dust exposure were measures to reduce the dangers of lunar dust during the Apollo missions (Cain, 2010). It was found that during exploration of the moon’s surface, the astronauts’ suits would often become contaminated with lunar dust that could cause sore throats, sneezing and in the long-term silicosis. To mitigate exposure the ‘Double Shell Spacesuit’ was introduced to prevent suits from entering the airlock. In addition to this ‘PPE’, Dust shields were also used as a means of controlling respirable dust (Cain, 2010).

Amongst all of the preventive measures, education emerged as a key theme that would need to be considered no matter what method was used. This aligns with the strategy of better training and education analysed by Elms et al, (2004).


Buy-in is needed from all levels of the workplace to manage dust exposure

The damaging and life-changing effects of respirable dust exposure shown above have the potential to have a long-term impact on workers lives and the organisations overall wellbeing. A common theme from the studies on exposure prevention shows the need for a coherent approach across the levels of the workplace. If everyone is on board with the idea, it leads to an update in PPE usage and better general safety practices.


Cain, J.R., 2010. Lunar dust: the hazard and astronaut exposure risks. Earth, Moon, and Planets, 107(1), pp.107-125.

Go, Leonard H.T.; Krefft, Silpa D.; Cohen, Robert A.; Rose, Cecile S. Lung disease and coal mining, Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine: March 2016 – Volume 22 – Issue 2 – p 170-178 doi: 10.1097/MCP.0000000000000251

Laney, A.S. and Weissman, D.N., 2014. Respiratory diseases caused by coal mine dust. Journal of occupational and environmental medicine/American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine56(0 10), p.S18.

Colinet, J., Health effects of overexposure to respirable silica dust. 2010.

ELMS, E. ROBINSON, S. RAHMAN, A. GARROD, Exposure to Flour Dust in UK Bakeries: Current Use of Control Measures, The Annals of Occupational Hygiene, Volume 49, Issue 1, January 2005, Pages 85–91, https://doi.org/10.1093/annhyg/meh074

Health and Safety Executive (2020), Quarries, accessed: 23 April 2020, available at: https://www.hse.gov.uk/lung-disease/quarries.htm

Takemura, Y., Kishimoto, T., Takigawa, T., Kojima, S., Wanga, B.L., Sakano, N., Wang, D.H., Takaki, J., Nishide, T., Ishikawa, K. and Ogino, K., 2008. Effects of mask fitness and worker education on the prevention of occupational dust exposure. Acta Medica Okayama62(2), pp.75-82.

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