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Flour dust at work can cause asthma

HSE InfoLine : 04 May, 2004  (Company News)
For one in ten of all adults who suffer from asthma, work is the cause. There are at least 1500 cases each year. Bakers are one of the most vulnerable groups, as flour and grain is the second biggest cause of occupational asthma. Some 65,000 baking industry workers are potentially at risk from flour dust.
But bakers and their employers can do a lot to help prevent the illness. All workers exposed to flour should have routine workplace health checks to ensure early detection. If spotted early, complete recovery is likely; if not, the lungs can become hypersensitive, leading to serious breathing difficulties, which can stop people working.

Dr Hugh Wolfson, Occupational Hygienist at HSE, said:
'Asthma can be a hugely unpleasant and disabling illness and workers deserve better protection from it. Bakers are particularly at risk, especially those who work with flour for long periods. Although many bakeries, especially larger ones, already provide effective controls, there is considerable scope for improvement in the industry. The results of a recent survey, especially when put together with the number of Improvement Notices served by our inspectors, are disappointing.'

A recent survey of 55 bakeries in the UK, conducted for the Advisory Committee on Toxic Substances, revealed a low level of compliance with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations, and poor working practices. Despite most (80%) bakeries confirming awareness that flour dust is a respiratory sensitiser:

only 26% of bakeries with five or more employees had assessed the hazards and completed a written risk assessment;
only 27% of bakeries were aware of the Exposure Limits relating to flour dust;
most bakeries were still using inappropriate work practices such as flour dusting by hand and cleaning by dry-brushing.
In Great Britain in the last three years, HSE inspectors have served 73 Improvement Notices to bakeries on matters relating to flour dust.

Dr Wolfson adds: 'But the good news is that employers can do a great deal to lower the risk of asthma in the baking industry. Engineering controls such as dust extraction equipment are the starting point, along with HSE's top ten tips for bakers, COSHH Essentials guidance and routine health checks.'

HSE's top ten tips, distributed to the baking industry as part of its guidance, highlight the simple precautions that can be taken when handling flour. For example, bakers should:

use sprinklers or dredgers to spread dusting flour instead of by hand;
avoid spilling flour and when it is spilt, clean up immediately;
use vacuums instead of brushes to clear-up dust;
avoid raising dust when putting ingredients into mixers or handling used bags;
start mixers on slow speed until wet and dry ingredients are combined.
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