Oil mist exposure - HSE hype or a real health hazard?

Having worked in the field of oil mist extraction for over 50 years, Filtermist is the first to recognise that investing in a new oil mist filter does not cause the same level of excitement as the arrival of a new machine tool. However, it is a necessary purchase – not only from a regulatory perspective, but also as part of the duty of care which all employers have to their employees.

In Great Britain, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been focussing on reducing cases of work-related lung-disease as a key strand in its current workplan ‘Helping GB work well’. For manufacturing and engineering businesses this means actively encouraging employers to fit and use local exhaust ventilation (LEV) to control exposure to metalworking fluids and weld fume.

This approach has met with some resistance from industry – particularly from companies which may only use their CNC machines sporadically and see little harm from small quantities of airborne oil mist. There has also been lively discussion around time delays recommended by the HSE before opening the machine tool doors, as any additional time requirement affects cycle-time which in turn affects productivity.

Anecdotally, there is also the perception that the HSE is ‘using this issue to pay wages’. However, whilst Government funding was significantly reduced from 2010 onwards, the HSE still currently receives two-thirds of its funding from Government.

The current economic situation means it is not surprising that many businesses are looking at ways of cutting costs; equipment which is deemed ‘non-essential’ or which doesn’t tangibly contribute to the bottom line is often one of the first items to be removed from planned spend, and any ‘unnecessary expenditure’ can be viewed with cynicism.

This topic is often discussed in industry forums, including social media where someone recently posted:

However, this is not true. The workplace exposure limit (WEL) of 5mg/m3 for oil mist particles was withdrawn in 2005 following an outbreak of respiratory illnesses at Powertrain Ltd, the engine building division of MG Rover, on the former Longbridge site in the West Midlands. This extract from the TUC (Trade Union Congress) website provides more details on this case:

After years of complaints by Unite, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 2004 reported about 12 per cent of staff had been affected by work-related asthma or extrinsic allergic alveolitis (EAA). In 2006, HSE revealed mist from metalworking machines had caused the disease outbreak, which had led to 101 workers being affected. HSE said the metalworking fluids had not been controlled effectively, allowing the build-up and continued growth of bacteria and other potentially harmful substances. In 2007, HSE said 87 workers had been struck down with occupational asthma and 24 with EAA, with the worst affected hit by both diseases. 

2006 saw another high-profile case where a Buckinghamshire based aeronautics manufacturer was fined £800,000 for breaching the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 which resulted in three workers developing extrinsic allergic alveolitis. The workers were exposed to metalworking fluids for at least three years and their employer failed to properly assess the risk, or provide regular health surveillance.

The HSE’s definition of EEA is as follows:

Extrinsic allergic alveolitis (EAA) refers to a group of lung diseases that can develop after exposure to certain substances. The name describes the origin and the nature of these diseases:

  • 'extrinsic' - caused by something originating outside the body
  • 'allergic' - an abnormally increased (hypersensitive) body reaction to a common substance
  • 'alveolitis' - inflammation in the small air sacs of the lungs (alveoli)

Symptoms can include fever, cough, worsening breathlessness and weight loss. The diagnosis of the disease is based on a history of symptoms after exposure to the allergen and a range of clinical tests which usually includes X-rays or CT scans, lung function and blood tests.

EAA is not a 'new' occupational respiratory disease and occupational causes include bacteria, fungi, animal proteins, plants and chemicals.

Global perspective

The HSE is not alone in its view of the potential dangers of exposure to oil mist particles.

Filtermist oil mist filters are trusted by world-leading manufacturers in more than 60 countries, many of which have their own regulations and exposure limits which companies are required to adhere to. Some of the strictest limits are in Europe – Sweden has a WEL for oil mist of 1mg/m3, whilst France is 0.5mg/m3, but many French companies use just 0.1mg/m3 as a benchmark.

Most adults breathe in and out between 12-20 times per minute when resting. That equates to 17,280 or 28,800 breaths per day - or an average of 23,040 breaths per day. That breaks down into 960 breaths per hour. Multiplying this figure by an average 8 hour working day shows that workers operating in polluted environments are potentially breathing in 7,680 breaths of contaminated air every working day!

Regardless of regulations, we believe it is every employer’s duty to protect their people from exposure to potentially harmful airborne oil mist particles. It is also worth noting that as well as safeguarding employee health, removing oil mist from the workplace does have other benefits such as reducing cleaning bills and fire risks, helping to ensure consistent component quality, and supporting employee recruitment and retention.

Even though COSHH Regulations have been in force since 1988, the UK’s manufacturing industry still has some way to go in dispelling the stereotypical image of dirty and unhealthy workplaces if it wishes to attract young engineers into the sector. Ensuring the air is clean is one way of doing this.

According to the HSE Manufacturing Statistics in Great Britain, 2021, report: Annually around 4,000 workers were suffering with breathing or lung problems caused or made worse by their work (new and long-standing cases).

The chest physician reporting scheme suggests that manufacturing has a rate of occupational asthma about 5 times higher than the All Industries average. The most common causes of occupational asthma include isocyanates, flour dust, solder/colophony, wood dust and cutting oils and coolants; these are exposures often found in manufacturing.

Contact our global teams to find out how Filtermist can help ensure the air in your machine shop is clean and safe to breathe, and your people are protected from exposure to hazardous particulate matter. Call us on +44 (0)1952 290500 or visit www.filtermist.com to find your nearest Filtermist distributor.

Sources

https://www.ioshmagazine.com/aeronautics-manufacturer-fined-metalworking-fluid-exposure-now-setting-standard

https://resources.hse.gov.uk/convictions-history/breach/breach_details.asp?SF=BID&SV=4442336002

https://www.tuc.org.uk/research-analysis/reports/payouts-agreed-autoworker-lung-disease

https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/4289/Health-and-safety-and-the-Health-and-Safety-Executive-What-the-spending-cuts-will-mean-Dec-10/pdf/hsecuts_allpartygroupreport.pdf

https://www.hse.gov.uk/lung-disease/extrinsic-allergic-alveolitis.htm

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/272308/6867.pdf

https://www.hse.gov.uk/strategy/assets/docs/hse-helping-great-britain-work-well-strategy-2016.pdf

https://www.hse.gov.uk/foi/internalops/og/og-00122.pdf

https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/industry/manufacturing.pdf

https://www.hse.gov.uk/aboutus/assets/docs/hse-business-plan.pdf