Basic knowledge: Protection of the respiratory organs from toxins in the air - Types of air pollutions: Toxins in the air at work

Basic knowledge: Protection of the respiratory organs from toxins in the air

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Why is air pollution at the workplace so dangerous?

Especially at the workplace, the inhalation of polluted air can lead to long-term damage to the respiratory organs and the entire body.  When hazardous substances such as microparticles, gases and vapours enter the bloodstream via the lungs, they often lead to work-related illnesses such as asbestosis, asthma or cancer.

Across all industries, workplaces can be exposed to various types of air pollution, which can have very different causes and effects: From road construction and mining, to the processing of wood or metal or the use of gases and chemical substances in production processes, but also during chemical-biological processes, e.g. in water treatment plants. Exhaust gases from engines and machines are also known to be a source of air pollution.

To effectively prevent exposure to pollutants at work, it is necessary to be aware of the risks of work-related illnesses and take the necessary precautions.

Types of air pollution at the workplace where respiratory protection is needed

Harmful air pollutants are often toxins which are substances or compounds that are harmful to humans, animals, plants, organisms or entire ecosystems.

Such hazardous substances are grouped into two categories: naturally occurring substances (such as mineral dust) or synthetic and artificially produced substances (such as vehicle exhaust fumes).

If the human body is exposed to toxins, they may result in work-related illnesses like asbestosis, asthma or even cancer.

From an occupational health and safety point of view, types of air pollutants from aerosols, vapours, fibres, smoke and dust are of importance and are briefly introduced below:

Types of air pollution - body and dust

What is dust and fine dust?

Dust is a common term for tiny solid particles that are spread through the air (airborne particles). If the particles are less than 5 micrometres in diameter, they are classified as fine dust, which can be inhaled into the lungs.

Microparticles are further classified into two groups: primary and secondary fine dust. Primary fine dust is released directly from the source (for example, through the process of combustion).

However, if the particles are formed by gaseous precursor substances such as sulphur oxide, nitric oxide or ammonia, they are called secondary fine dust.

Respiratory protection is needed during tasks in which heavy concentrations of dust are produced, such as grinding, sweeping or drilling. Respiratory masks e.g. against silica dust, or the dangerous asbestos dust protect against inhalation of dust and fine dust.

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Types of air pollution - body and smoke

What is smoke?

Smoke is an aerosol that is dispersed in microscopic form and consists of exhaust gases, dust particles and droplets of water vapour. It is usually released through the process of combustion. Smoke is always a mixture of solid and gaseous substances.

The exhaust gases from industrial plants are often called flue gases. The dreaded smoke poisoning can occur in apartment fires or through exhaust gases in unventilated rooms.

Firefighters and rescue teams are also confronted with smoke and must therefore first protect their own lives with supplied air respirators. In extreme situations smoke- or rescue hoods can help when employees need to get themselves to safety.

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Types of air pollution - body and vapours

What are vapours?

A vapour is defined as a gas that is generally still in contact with the liquid or solid state from which it has occurred through evaporation.

Over time, a dynamic balance is achieved in which exactly the same volume of liquid- or solid-state particles enter the gaseous state as are converted back from the gas. At that point, the vapour reaches saturation level.

Although gaseous vapour is invisible, the term "vapour" is generally used to refer to a visible mixture of air and microscopic liquid droplets. The technical term for this is aerosol or liquid vapour.

VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are vapours e.g. from solvents such as paints, varnishes, adhesives or wood preservatives, in the workplace they can be particularly problematic.

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Types of air pollution - Body and mist

What is mist?

Refers to a heterogeneous mixture in which microscopic liquid droplets are dispersed in gas. One example of this is water droplets in the air. The substances are so loosely mixed with one another that the individual components can be distinguished by the naked eye. Different areas of the mixture have different properties (such as colour, hardness and aggregate state) from adjacent areas.

Mist and aerosols become hazardous to health when the particles are inhaled deep into the lungs. Even disposable spray cans with flammable and highly flammable contents (e.g. corrosion protection spray, contact spray) can be problematic in the workplace.  Other examples are oil mists from cutting or grinding operations, and acid. The inhalation of such aerosols should be avoided.

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Types of air pollution - body and gases

What are gases?

Strictly speaking, a substance is a "gas" when a mass composed of this substance occurs in a gaseous aggregate state at a temperature of 20 °C and pressure of 1 bar (also known as the standard state). When this occurs, the molecules of the substance are entirely free to move, and the mass fills the available space completely and evenly.

Gaseous substances can be toxic or explosive. Even apparently harmless gases indirectly become life-threatening if they displace oxygen. In many cases it is recommended to do a clearance measurement of closed rooms in which gas is suspected before stepping in. Beside gas detectors, supplied air respirators and breathing apparatuses support workers within those conditions.

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Work related illness - air pollution deseases

Common occupational diseases due to air pollution at work

If hazardous substances are not handled with care in the workplace, the result can have a lasting impact on human health which may take many different forms. The lungs and other sensitive organs are particularly vulnerable to these impacts. In many cases, the serious effects may go undetected for many years or even decades.

It is important to adhere to instructions for occupational safety and health protection.

Many common work-related illnesses like the ones listed below can be avoided through proper preventive measures, such as effective respiratory protection:

  • Asthma
  • Black lung Silicosis
  • Cancer Asbestosis
  • Allergies

Knowledge to go

Download handbook

Introduction to Respiratory Protection

If hazardous substances occur at your workplace in concentrations that are too high, or if oxygen levels are too low, you need suitable respiratory protection. In our handbook, you can learn everything you need to know about the fundamentals of respiratory protection.

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Respiratory protection

Choose the right protection

The suitable respiratory protective equipment depends on the type of hazardous substances involved, their concentration, the environment and the duration of use. Here, you can find out everything about the different types and how to choose them.

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Safely using respiratory protection

Respiratory protection can only work reliably when used correctly. We have compiled a collection of practical tips and background information for you from our respiratory protection experts.

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Draeger Safety UK Ltd.

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