Flour dust particles are very fine and easily become airborne, where their size means they burn instantly, igniting surrounding grains and moving through the air with explosive force.
Flour dust’s small size means it can also easily be inhaled and it is therefore a serious respiratory hazard for workers such as bakers, millers, and food processing workers. Flour dust can irritate the nose, throat and lungs, causing coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and asthma-like symptoms and bronchitis. Long-term exposure to high levels of flour dust can also lead to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other respiratory diseases.
Some workers may also develop an allergic reaction to flour dust, which can lead to more severe respiratory symptoms such as tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing and even anaphylaxis.
In addition, Flour dust can irritate the eyes, causing redness, watering and itching. Prolonged exposure can lead to conjunctivitis and other eye conditions. It can also cause irritation and dryness to the skin, leading to dermatitis and other skin conditions.
It is therefore important employers carry out a risk assessment to identify the level of risk from flour dust exposure and implement control measures accordingly. This assessment should be reviewed regularly to ensure the effectiveness of the control measures.
The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provides guidance on measures that companies should introduce to protect workers from flour dust. Here are some of the key measures:
- The use of engineering controls: Employers should implement engineering controls such as local exhaust ventilation (LEV) to capture and remove dust at the source. The LEV system should be designed, installed and maintained in accordance with HSE guidance.
- Good housekeeping: Employers should ensure good housekeeping practices are followed, such as regular cleaning of the work area, tools and equipment, to prevent the accumulation of flour dust.
- Use of PPE: Employers should provide suitable PPE such as respiratory protective equipment (RPE), eye protection, gloves, and suitable clothing to protect workers from inhaling or coming into contact with flour dust.
- Health surveillance: Employers should carry out regular health surveillance of workers who are exposed to flour dust, to identify any ill health effects and take appropriate action.
- Training and supervision: Employers should provide appropriate training and supervision for workers to ensure they are aware of the hazards associated with flour dust and the control measures in place to protect them.
- Controlling access to the workplace: Employers should control access to areas where flour dust is present and provide warning signs to alert workers and visitors of the potential hazard.
- Job rotation and breaks: Employers should consider introducing job rotation and breaks for workers who are exposed to high levels of flour dust to reduce their overall exposure.
- Regular monitoring: Employers should carry out regular monitoring of the workplace to assess the effectiveness of control measures and to identify any changes in the level of risk.
When choosing RPE it is very important to remember not only to use masks that have a high filtration efficiency, such as an FFP3 Respirator, but also to make sure that the mask fits properly.
Fit testing for tight fitting RPE is the process of checking the seal between the mask and the wearer's face to ensure that the mask is properly fitted and able to provide effective protection against airborne particles. The purpose of fit testing is to identify any gaps or leaks between the mask and the face that could allow dust to enter the wearer's respiratory system.
It is important to note that face fit testing should be performed by a trained professional during the initial selection process of tight fitting RPE, it also needs to be repeated if there are changes to the wearer's face, such as weight loss or gain, or if the mask model or size is changed. Regular fit testing is also recommended to ensure that the tight fitting RPE continues to provide adequate protection over time, this time period has been set at 2 years by the HSE.
There have been several cases in the UK where companies have been fined for exposing workers to flour dust.
- In 2018, a bakery in the West Midlands was fined £146,000 after workers were exposed to high levels of flour dust. The company was found to have inadequate control measures in place, including a lack of local exhaust ventilation and failure to provide appropriate respiratory protective equipment.
- In 2017, a flour milling company in Lancashire was fined £20,000 for failing to adequately control the exposure of workers to flour dust. The company was found to have failed to provide adequate local exhaust ventilation and to have failed to ensure that workers wore appropriate respiratory protective equipment.
- In 2016, a bakery in Bristol was fined £6,000 for exposing workers to flour dust. The company was found to have failed to provide appropriate respiratory protective equipment and to have inadequate control measures in place, including a lack of local exhaust ventilation.
These examples illustrate the importance of complying with regulations and taking appropriate measures to protect workers from exposure to flour dust.