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Understanding the risks from exposure and how to control these, including Respiratory Protective Equipment

​​​Work processes may involve the use of a variety of chemicals and substances that can create fumes, dusts and other substances.

Breathing in hazardous substances at work can put your employees' health at risk and may cause a range of respiratory diseases and conditions from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cancers​. It can also cause other diseases of the airways and lungs, for example airway obstruction, bronchitis or lung cancers. As well as this, it can cause cancer in other parts of the body, nervous system diseases and disorders of reproductive organs.​

Use the links below to find information and resources on how to assess the risks to breathing, the equipment you can use and your legal duties.​​

  1. Common breathing hazards
  2. Precautions for breathing
  3. Respiratory protective equipment
  4. Legal duties to protect breathing

2. Precautions for breathing

If a job involves using potentially harmful substances, there are a few measures you can put in place to reduce or remove harm.

  1. Eliminate - remove the use of the substance, or use a safe one.
  2. Substitute - change the process to use an alternative, safer substance.
  3. Engineering controls - remove emissions near the source through local exhaust ventilation.
  4. Admin controls - have as few workers involved as possible and enclose the area so that the substance does not escape.
  5. PPE - provide respiratory protection equipment (RPE) and additional personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves and coveralls.​

Monitor and c​heck

Other precautions you can take include

  • train and instruct your workers to use control measures correctly
  • plan how to deal with accidents and emergencies, for example spills or an employee becoming unconscious
  • follow the recommended schedules for checking, maintaining and testing and keep records of checks and maintenance.

Some dusts will have a Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL)​ assigned to them, which means they are particularly hazardous to health and exposure needs to be tightly controlled; this can only be determine through monitoring.​

In some situations you will have a legal duty to undertake Occupational Hygiene monitoring. For example, air sampling or personal dosimetry or sampling the individual breathing zone (personal dosimetry). This is to make sure that control measures you put in place are effective, or carry out health surveillance on workers where exposures may not be fully controlled. 

​Respiratory sensitisation

A person becoming sensitised to a substance or materials in the workplace can have devastating effects. It may make it impossible for them to continue to work with the product concerned. Symptoms vary depending on which part of the body is affected.

Initial symptoms can be similar to hayfever - runny, itching eyes and nose. These may be followed by more severe symptoms typical of asthma such as

  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • breathlessness
  • tightness of the chest.

Symptoms can occur on first exposure to the substance. Most cases of sensitisation occur within the first few months but sensitisation can also occur many years after first exposure.

Other significant aspects of sensitisation are

  • with continued exposure, symptoms become worse
  • there can be an improvement in symptoms during weekends and holidays
  • once established, respiratory episodes can be triggered by other things like tobacco smoke, cold air and exercise
  • symptoms are often most severe in the evening, or during the night, and so the employee often does not associate them with work.

Find out more

You can find more information on precautions to protect breathing ​in our publication, Health risks at work.

Go to our Health risks at work publication​

For more information you can also visit the Construction Dust Partnership site.