Plant & Works Engineering
Airborne hazards in the factory - more than COVID-19
Published:  30 October, 2020

With many factories being redesigned to be COVID-safe, staff returning to work, and with some key staff still not in post, it is easy to lose focus on some of the other airborne hazards lurking in factory environments, which are as dangerous as ever. Andy Pye looks at a few of these.

The novel coronavirus can be transmitted via surfaces recently contaminated with viruses. The same is true for allergens. Today, more than 150 million Europeans suffer from chronic allergic diseases, with predictions that by 2025, half of the entire population will be affected. This presents a particular issue for food processing.

Individuals may be allergic to a product as a whole or ingredients, mainly proteins, contained in a food product. Given the current frontline medical pressures, the importance of allergy management must not be overlooked.

According to Phil Brown, Managing Director of Sparc Systems, confusing guidance, weak legislation, and multi-function food production sites can pollute the entire supply chain. ““The current COVID-19 pandemic has placed greater emphasis on sanitation and best practice in food factories,” says Brown. “Taking preventative measures when it comes to cross contamination of any kind and re-doubling hygiene and sanitation efforts will always help to combat the risk of allergen, pathogen or bacteria contamination.”

Food and beverage manufacturers have a responsibility to identify allergens that are contained in their products. This responsibility extends to isolating them from other nonallergen products processed in the same facility.

But although producers are active in ensuring they source allergen-free products, problems may still occur on the supplier side, especially when sourcing from multiple or multi-function sites.

For example, dairy-free products are still often produced at sites that make dairy products. Some might not have dedicated dairy-free machinery and zones. Although thorough clean-downs flush away residual dairyproducts, this method is not totally fool-proof.

Planning production schedules to isolate products containing allergens is a common tactic in manufacturing plants where a dedicated line cannot be allocated. Storage of ingredients should also be separated. Gluten in particular has become a major source of concern, with many sites introducing segregated gluten-free stations and changes of work clothes for operatives.

Following several high-profile allergic fatalities, allergen labelling has been made stricter. Although consumers may be intolerant or have an allergic reaction to a range of ingredients, EU law lists no less than 14 that should be declared on pre-packed and nonpre-packed food and drink: celery, cereals that contain gluten (barley and oats), fish and crustacean shellfish, eggs, milk, lupin, molluscs (oysters), mustard, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, soybeans, and sulphur dioxide/sulphites.

Sparc can assist food manufacturers who invest in the company’s X-ray and metal detector inspection systems by integrating an advanced label inspection system. As well as actively inspecting for allergen ID codes, these labelsystems also check product descriptions, bar codes, lot numbers and date codes. This checks for errors: mis-labelled products are automatically pushed into a rejection bin, safeguarding against potentially business critical events and product recalls. Information on all rejected products is automatically tracked by advanced data collection software.

Combustible dust explosions

Any workplace that generates dust is potentially at risk of explosion. In the food industry, particular risks emanate from grain elevators, bins and silos, as well as candy, sugar, spice, starch, flour and animal feed. But other products at risk include fertilizer, woodworking facilities, tyre and rubber manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and metal powder processing or storage (especially magnesium and aluminium).

In 2014, a fatal combustible dust blast in a Chinese processing facility killed 75 people killed and severely injured 185. The blast is one of many that has recently affected China.

There is also additional risk to health at much lower levels of exposure. In the United Kingdom during 2015-2016, 13,000 deaths were reported from past exposures at work, primarily to chemicals and dust.

The Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 set out the minimum requirements for improving health and safety protection within potentially explosive atmospheres through the safe handling and use of dangerous substances. In accordance with the regulations, it is the employer’s responsibility to protection employees from these risks to their safety in the workplace. Employers need to identify where explosive atmosphere conditions occur and to assess the risk and record what actions are being taken to prevent an explosion and fire.

What are the conditions that employers need to assess to prevent a combustible dust explosion? According to Tim Turney, Technical Product Manager at Casella, who specialises in measurement and instrumentation for air sampling, a dust explosion can only occur when the following five factors are present:

Fuel, in the form of dust particles

Dispersion of the fuel in the form of a dust cloud

Oxygen in the form of air

Confinement of the dust cloud in the form of a container (e.g. a dust collector)

A source of ignition

Turney says that undertaking a walk-through survey using a hand-held, real-time sampler will give instantaneous indication of concentration. It could also be used to check the effectiveness of control measures such as local exhaust ventilation e.g. pre and post filter. Industrial hygienists may already be undertaking personal monitoring for toxic or sensitizing dusts and the same air-sampling pump could be used in combination with a real-time sampler when housed in a robust, portable case, on an unattended, short-term basis.

For high risk areas, fixed, powered systems can be used for continuous monitoring. The data these generate can be made available remotely using a web-based interface. Such systems provide real-time alerts via text message or an email should limits be exceeded. Reports can easily be automated and sent to multiple users, which allows an early intervention to avoid a potential problem.

Action thresholds should always be set at a fraction of the Lower Explosion Limit (LEL) for the dust in question.

Asbestos exposure

Finally, a few words about our old friend asbestos. Although the risk is much lower than it used to be, there is no excuse for complacency, because asbestos is still present in many older buildings and structures.

“Even though we have more knowledge about the dangers of asbestos that we lacked several decades ago, naturally when being in the vicinity of structures that contain these fibres, we risk exposure to them,” says Ben Pickard, Director of Asbestos Audit Environmental Services, a company which undertakes asbestos surveying, sampling, management and removal, all in compliance with the asbestos regulations.

However, Pickard adds, if asbestos is handled correctly and is safely managed and contained, the hazards associated with asbestos can be prevented.

Table 1

To prevent exposure to asbestos, the following health and safety measures should be followed:

Identify if asbestos is present. It is always best to assume there is asbestos present in old buildings until you know otherwise.

Conduct a risk assessment. If asbestos is present, determine who could potentially be at risk to exposure to it and avoid disturbing the fibres if possible.

Provide adequate asbestos health and safety training for employees.

Follow all advice provided. If asbestos is present, a guidance sheet should be provided.

Provide the correct PPE to staff to ensure their safety. The correct decontamination process of all equipment, tools and PPE should be conducted.

Safely dispose of asbestos waste. Any waste must be double bagged and disposed of at a licensed tip.

Go to to find out more about the risks of asbestos exposure and mesothelioma cancer."