Bakery Industry – Is airborne flour dust in your factory putting your employees at risk?

January 27, 2017

Food manufacturers and in particular bakeries are currently being targeted by the HSE for proactive inspections – see also our blog with further information about your LEV putting you at risk.

Industrial bakeries and factories handle and process tonnes of flour amongst other ingredients throughout the day and night, seven days a week. In the areas of the factory where any airborne dust particles including flour, pose a risk to workers, an assessment of the concentration of the particles in the air is a legal requirement under COSHH regulations. Whilst the HSE provide guidance, there are many factors that need to be considered in each particular situation, so the individual assessment is advisable to ensure you are compliant.

The very finest particles of dust (known as respirable dust) are not visible, so even if you can’t physically see the dust it may still be present in high volume. Visually, if you can see dust particles in shafts of light, then this is an indication that there are high levels of dust in the air, which can pose risk to your workers.

What are the dangers of flour dust?

1 Inhalation

On the first hand, regular inhalation of fine flour particles can cause ‘White Lung’, also known as ‘Baker’s asthma’, which is a type of occupational asthma. This is a condition that bakery employees can develop after being exposed regularly without the correct controls and preventive measures in place. The HSE statistics reveal that bakery workers are the occupation group at second highest risk of contracting occupational asthma.

Within the factory, there will be areas that would be considered to be higher exposure than others, but employees working in any areas may be at risk. The symptoms of respiratory issues can go unnoticed for a long time, but sudden running or blocked nose, itching eyes and wheezing or whistling chest can indicate the onset of asthma. Repeated bouts of coughing during work can also be a sign that fine particles have entered the lungs. Here is an article which highlights the slow onset of baker’s asthma and how early diagnosis and treatment is so important. Read it here.

To eliminate this risk, employers must adhere to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH). Flour dust has been set a Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL) comprising a long-term exposure limit of 10mg/m(averaged over 8 hours) and a short-term exposure limit of 30mg/m3 (averaged over 15 minutes).

However, due to the chronic health effects the employee’s exposure to flour dust MUST be reduced to ‘as low as reasonably practical’.

2 Explosion

Secondly, there is a risk of explosion, as any fine dust particles that are not controlled can very easily ignite and cause a series of explosions and fire balls through the factory. Examples of explodable dusts in food industries include materials such as: flour, custard powder, instant coffee, sugar, dried milk, potato powder and soup powder.

Industrial fire and explosion hazards are controlled through the application of DSEAR (the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations) 2002, enforced primarily by HSE and Local Authorities.

COSHH Assessments

COSHH is the law that requires employers to control substances that are hazardous to health. COSHH Regulation 6 requires, if you employ more than 5 people you will need to have a designated, competent person to carry out the assessment and the findings of the assessment will need to be recorded. The following steps will help you to gather information:

  1. Walk around your workplace. Where is there potential for exposure to substances that might be hazardous to health? For example airborne flour dust.
  2. In what way are the substances harmful to health? Your product supplier must give you an up to date ‘material safety data sheet’, which will give the information on the product.
  3. What jobs or tasks lead to exposure? Write down which employees are at risk, what control measures you use to prevent this and how likely these workers are to be exposed to unhealthy levels of flour dust
  4. Are there any areas of concern, e.g. from the Accident Book? Have any workers reported respiratory difficulties?
  5. What control measures are to be put in place to control the exposure. This is to be done using the Hierarchy of Control (COSHH Regulation 7).
  6. Check and review your solution and consider any findings raised in statutory reports.

The actual monitoring of the level of airborne harmful particles will need to be carried out with specialist air sampling equipment. Read a detailed document of what to expect from a competent monitoring specialist here:

By law your company needs to be having a COSHH assessment by a competent company on a yearly basis.  If this does not take place, you are at risk of prosecution by the HSE – and they are very clear that ignorance of the law is no excuse.

COSHH health surveillance

As part of your duties as an employer, you must obtain information about employees’ health as well as data on the exposure levels of hazardous substances in their workplace. The objective is to protect them from any potential health risks at work, by early detection of health issues or disease and minimise exposure to harmful substances.

It is not enough to simply carry out these health checks and record them. The data needs to be interpreted by a professional physician who is competent in occupational medicine. Then action must be taken if there is a problem. For example, an affected employee may need to be redeployed to stop the risk escalating further.

Training for employees

It is essential that you provide information as well as training and instruction for employees who work with hazardous substances (COSHH Regulation 8 makes this a legal requirement). This must include cleaning and maintenance staff. Your employees need to understand the outcome of your risk assessment and what this means for them. This includes telling them and providing data sheets on the following:

  • what the hazards and risks are
  • relevant workplace exposure limits
  • the results of any monitoring of exposure
  • the general results of health surveillance
  • procedures for an accident or emergency
  • planned future changes in processes or substances and equipment use

What preventative measures can be taken with the handling of flour?

There are many changes that can be made to the process of working with flour that will dramatically reduce the levels of airborne dust, here are just some examples:

  • Not tipping flour from height when sifting, mixing or weighing
  • Flour should be tipped gently and not dumped
  • Mixing should be started at a low speed until the flour is combined with the other ingredients
  • Consider using an enclosed system to transfer the flour or a separate contained area for sifting, mixing and weighing
  • Spilt flour should not be swept up but vacuumed and avoid using compressed airlines for cleaning
  • Regular cleaning of high level surfaces where flour dust will have collected
  • Careful rolling and disposal of flour sacks, to avoid flattening or folding which would cause a plume of dust
  • Empty flour sacks should be stored elsewhere
  • Flour and other powder containers to have lids, which should only be removed when necessary
  • Implementation of dust extraction equipment or LEV systems in very dusty areas. Fit a manometer or pressure gauge near the extraction point, to show that the extraction is working properly and ensure that the system is on and functioning properly before work commences
  • Personal respirator (RPE) should be considered for very dusty tasks in situations where dust extraction is impossible. Remember, RPE is the last line of defence and should ONLY be used ‘in conjunction with other engineering controls’.

How can Vent Tech help you?

From the initial assessment through to advice, monitoring, testing, equipment, training and LEV systems, our experienced team can evaluate your individual circumstances and advise you of the best course of action to ensure compliance and keep your workforce safe.

Vent-Tech have helped many companies to improve their current systems of minimising harmful airborne dust. In some cases it can be as simple as process change, or perhaps supplying industrial vacuums. We have also installed dust extraction systems and LEV systems at many big food manufacturers including Aunt Bessies, Mission Foods and Greencore. To find out more about our process and what we can do to ensure the protection of your employees, give us a call on  01179 712 163.