HSE Warns Against Nuisance Dust Masks

Jan. 24, 2003
Great Britain's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) wants nuisance dust masks taken off the market.

HSE, Great Britain's answer to OSHA, is encouraging the voluntary withdrawal from sale of nuisance dust masks, warning employees who work with harmful dusts should not use nuisance dust masks to protect themselves from exposure. The agency is urging the use of approved CE-marked disposable respirators instead.

The warning is in support of the Health and Safety Commission's (HSC) campaign to reduce respiratory diseases such as occupational asthma, which is the most frequently diagnosed occupational-related respiratory disease in Great Britain. HSE estimates that between 1,500 and 3,000 people develop it every year.

Nuisance dust masks should only be used when dusts are not hazardous to health, but they are often used as cheap alternatives to the correct protective equipment. Despite resembling the kind of disposable respirators that should be used, nuisance dust masks are not protective devices. However they are readily available to industry, DIY enthusiasts and hobbyists, which means that they may be found in a variety of occupational and domestic environments and consequently could be used for purposes that they are not intended for.

HSE warns they should not be used for protection against fine dusts, welding fumes, asbestos, fine sand, paint spray, gases, vapors or aerosols. In addition, they should not be used for substances with a maximum exposure limit because the law requires that exposures to these be reduced as much as possible. This means they are unsuitable for protection against grain dust, flour dust, ferrous foundry dust, hard or softwood dust, wool process dust or fume from rosin-based solder flux.

Similarly, nuisance dust masks should not be used to give protection from substances that cause occupational asthma but do not have occupational exposure limits. Examples include some dyes, antibiotic dusts, proteolytic enzymes and mold spores.

"HSE will [issue citations] against employers who issue nuisance dust masks inappropriately when proper respirators should be used, although HSE cannot prohibit their sale," said Dr. Bob Rajan, HSE principal specialist inspector. "A statutory ban on these masks would require a change in European law. However HSE is committed to ensuring that workers' health is better protected. In particular, HSE has set a target of 30 percent reduction in new cases of occupational asthma by 2010. If nuisance dust masks have been used because of a lack of proper risk assessment, replacement by appropriate disposable respirators should show health benefits."

Geoff Hooke, secretary general of the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF), said BSIF members have expressed concern over the fact that buyers of respiratory protection buy nuisance dust masks because of the low price. "The BSIF supports the current initiative by HSE towards the elimination of nuisance dust masks from the UK market," he added.

The withdrawal of nuisance dust masks from sale has also received the support of HSC's Industry Advisory Committees, which represent companies and trade unions from a broad cross-section of British industry.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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