Dust Masks in the Spotlight
Over the past few weeks we’ve been bringing our readers as much information as possible about the dangers of asbestos – a lethal substance that still exists in so many buildings here in the UK. Because the use of asbestos was not totally banned until 1999, any building constructed before that date potentially contains asbestos or asbestos containing materials (ACMs). This means that construction companies carrying out repair and refurbishment work are likely to encounter asbestos at some point and will need to adhere to the strict regulations that now cover asbestos. Part of the remit of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE’s) inspectors is to be on the lookout for breaches of the regulations governing asbestos and safe working practices, including the protective measures and equipment necessary to protect workers from exposure to asbestos. As such, inspectors often voice concern about the way in which companies “face-fit” dust masks.
Because dust masks are specifically designed to reduce the risk of workers inhaling dust which contains dangerous chemicals which lead to fatal diseases, this leaves many workers here in the UK at an unacceptable risk of developing lung cancer, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and silicosis. While wearing a dust mask can significantly reduce the risk of workers inhaling these dangerous chemicals, the risk will only be reduced if the dust mask worn is of the correct type and fitted properly with no gaps.
Even just a few minutes’ exposure to harmful dust can result in illness – many dangerous substances exist as a fine dust, or even fume, or as a gas or vapour which is invisible in the air, just like the oxygen we breathe. Around 12,000 people die each year in the UK as a result of long-term exposure to substances that they breathe in at work. If an employer chooses to have workers wear dust masks as a method of protecting their health, then it’s important that each worker is involved in selecting the mask they are going to wear.
Although many workers will say that a dust mask is hot and uncomfortable, then this is an issue that needs to be addressed during the face-fitting process. Working closely with the professional who is helping to fit your mask is an essential step in ensuring greater comfort during wear. Each individual worker should be given advice on how to fit the mask properly and which type of mask will best suit the individual’s needs.
Some masks need to be fitted tightly to the face so it’s essential that the mask forms a good seal to the skin. The mask may at first feel a little uncomfortable (for instance, you may find that you need to make a little extra effort to breathe through the mask) but most people get used to wearing a mask before too long.
Masks and filters need changing on a regular basis and it’s important that your employer provides suitable training on how to check, put on, use, maintain and store your mask. Some masks, such as disposable dust masks, should be replaced every day and it’s the responsibility of the employer to ensure that plenty of these disposable masks are available for the workforce.