Making the Invisible, Visible

Fighting a microscopic enemy in the workplace

Before technology was deployed to protect workers, canaries were used to detect dangerous levels of invisible poisonous gas in coal mines. When a canary would become ill or die, the workers knew that dangerous levels of carbon monoxide were present, and they could leave the mine before experiencing ill effects.

"Working to prevent ill-health among construction and heavy engineering workers in the UK isn’t something that we can afford to ignore, especially when it comes to dust."

The canary in the coal mine may be one of the earliest examples of people monitoring exposure to hazardous working conditions in real-time. And while this method was abandoned in favour of more accurate, more reliable modern technologies, the basic principle remains true: by detecting and monitoring exposure to known workplace risks, it’s possible to better prevent worker ill-health.

And working to prevent ill-health among workers in the UK isn’t something that we can afford to ignore, especially when it comes to dust.

Each year in the UK, about 12,000 people die from diseases linked to past exposure to dust at work. Between 2019/20, 99% of work-related deaths were attributed to ill-health, with 1% attributed to poor safety: construction workers are 100x more likely to die from occupational disease than accidents.

When it comes to economic cost, it’s not just employers that pay for these tragedies: in 2018/19, £5.6B was passed to society for work-related injuries, while nearly double that amount was passed on for cases of ill-health, not including pre-existing cases linked to previous exposure.

With such a high cost associated with occupational ill-health and disease, it’s important to understand what can be done to reduce the risk of illness as a result of exposure to dangerous levels of dust.

Like health problems caused by exposure to vibration or noise, dust is often dangerous when exposure is cumulative. Further, some types of dust are more dangerous than others, and the most dangerous dust is often invisible. The harm caused by exposure to dust ranges from skin irritation to cancer, and because everyone responds differently, it’s difficult to determine what dust - or how much - will cause which problems in any person. And that’s part of why it’s important to understand an individual’s exposure to dust, in real-time. But individual susceptibility isn’t the only reason why personal monitoring is so effective, and so crucial for worker health.

Professional assessments of dust in the workplace are less reliable than emerging personal dust monitors because they can be unrepresentative: they provide a snapshot of the type and amount of dust in any workplace, which means they can’t reliably assess the actual threat posed by dust day-to-day. Professional assessments also fail to inform workers and duty holders regarding the effectiveness of controls: personal monitoring, however, allows workers to see whether existing controls are working - at any time, during any activity.

Dust monitoring technology takes a microscopic threat and transforms it into tangible, actionable data. By making the invisible, visible, it easily and efficiently provides the insight necessary to shed light on dangerous dust, in even the darkest corners of the workplace. By empowering individual workers to understand their exposure, you give them a real opportunity to reduce their risk to a dangerous threat.

"By making the invisible, visible, it easily and efficiently provides the insight necessary to shed light on dangerous dust, even in the darkest corners of the workplace."

We’ve come a long way since canaries were sent to mines to detect hazardous conditions, but when it comes to monitoring exposure to risk from dust, the numbers tell us that we still have a long way to go. Dust monitoring technology isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessary part of providing new, reliable ways to help reduce the impact of the biggest threat to UK workers’ health in a practical, accessible manner.

It’s a canary in the coal mine for the 21st century, and it’s a necessary evolution for the protection of our workforce.

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