Making facemasks redundant for dust control

Executive director - policy, IOSH

Occupational cancer is something we should talk about more. It is an issue we should plant centre stage and take more seriously. Asbestos is a widely understood killer but it is not the only occupational cancer-causing agent.

IOSH’s No Time to Lose campaign seeks to raise awareness of occupational cancer focusing on five common agents associated with work-related cancer: asbestos, diesel engine exhaust fumes, silica dust, solar radiation and shiftwork.

Globally, silicosis claimed the lives of more than 46,000 people in 2013 – that is a very conservative estimate and the reality is likely to be much worse. In Britain, 15 people die each week from lung cancer caused by respirable silica exposure at work.

Our picture of respirable silica exposure is becoming clearer: 500,000 people a year in the UK, five million across the EU, 2.2 million in the US, ten million in India and 23 million in China.

IOSH’s consultation with the Construction Dust Partnership provided us with some interesting insights into the key issues for the construction industry. For me three stood out: a lack of priority by the organisation on silica exposure; an over-reliance on protective masks; and poor awareness of the risk among the workforce. (Only 16% of construction professionals think workers know about the health risks of silica dust.)

Imagine a world where “ban the facemask” was as successful as “ban the broom”

Raising awareness, guidance on prevention and providing briefing material all help and 10,000 of you downloaded our silica materials in March alone. The organisational pledges, our roundtable launch, increasing exchange of case studies and high-profile events such as the Construction Health Summit should help to keep this issue in people’s minds.

There is, however, one action that I believe will have a profound effect on the likelihood of exposing workers to silica dust: ban the mask.

Seeing workers on pavements, at kerbsides cutting slabs and kerbstones, surrounded by clouds of silica dust while wearing ear defenders, gloves, goggles and facemasks has become the norm. We have become too reliant and too accepting that the facemask is the control when, even if it has been correctly chosen, fitted properly and is well maintained, it is rather indicative of a failure of control.

The dust clouds are preventable – employers can take reasonably practicable steps to enable these workers to undertake their tasks without the need for masks. To name a few: use a different product (no silica); offsite manufacturing to prevent cutting; buy equipment that prevents dust (suppression/extraction). Employers should specify these preventive control measures; workers should ask why a mask is necessary if one is provided.

The Wates Group and many other construction contractors’ successful “ban the broom” initiatives have been transformational in practice and culture on construction sites.

Imagine a world where “ban the facemask” was as successful. What would happen if facemasks were no longer an accepted control measure and all of us were challenged to control dust to the point where facemasks were redundant? Would it make you think and behave differently?


Shelley Frost is executive director - policy at IOSH. She was formerly head of sustainability at Aggregate Industries UK and has held a number of senior positions in the health and safety and sustainability arenas, from regulatory, policy and strategy to operational management.

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  • I was interested by this

    Permalink Submitted by Sharon Webster on 26 May 2016 - 10:01 am

    I was interested by this article and can see that for some jobs where exposure is for long periods and regular this may be possible if the bigger companies were to take this line, however for maintenance workers who are doing small, short length work that have a low revenue related to them this will be very difficult for employers to do.

  • A goal that we should all

    Permalink Submitted by John Cairns - Chairman , Safety Groups UK on 11 June 2016 - 03:14 pm

    A goal that we should all aspire to & work together to achieve - however while on that journey if RPE is being selected as part of the control measures being deployed we need to ensure correct selection for the application, face-fit tested as appropriate, users suitably trained, proper maintenance & records kept as required. On tool LEV which is easy to use is also needed to reduce the dependency on RPE as the last resort. A continued focus on raising the awareness & educating those being exposed to the dangers of respirable hazards, particularly toxic dusts needs to continue until face masks are obsolete.

  • This is an admirable aim and

    Permalink Submitted by David Liddell on 15 June 2016 - 01:39 pm

    This is an admirable aim and worthy of consideration. My personal experience (as as raised by Sharon) suggests that actually achieving any form of control with smaller tertiary groups is still a challenge in itself. I would also like to point out a fourth significant factor, one which maybe overshadows others - attitude (especially amongst 40-60 year old males). "I've done this for 30 years and I'm still okay" is an unfortunately common response.

  • In response to Sharon Webster

    Permalink Submitted by John Brookes on 22 June 2016 - 03:04 pm

    In response to Sharon Webster's comment, controlling dust at source does not need to be expensive. Revenue should not be a factor. Water suppression, once the equipment has been purchased less than £100 is pretty much free. Dust extraction again once the equipment is purchased less than £200 and some maintenance costs e.g. PA Testing and filters is cheap to run.
    There is a legal requirement under COSHH to stop dust entering the atmosphere along with the clean air act.
    Should a company not have the resource or finance to do the job safely perhaps they should consider turning down that type of work.
    Banning face masks is also not a good idea as workers even using extraction and suppression are still exposed to dust above the WEL's. Disposable masks should be banned and only fully fitted reusable face masks should be used as the paper filter types are renowned for failing a fit test and even if the worker passes a test 2 days of stubble will render the mask useless.
    I fully agree with John Cairns "A continued focus on raising the awareness & educating those being exposed to the dangers of respirable hazards"


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