Youth in Agriculture » Organic Dust

Tractor dust
The National Safety Council reported in 1990 that one-third of the 300 farm workers incapacitated due to respiratory conditions were caused by dust.

Do You Know... there are many hazards associated with breathing organic dust in agricultural operations? Organic dust comes from hay, grain, fuel chips, straw, and livestock. Organic dust includes molds, pollens, bacteria, pesticides, chemicals, feed and bedding particles, and animal particles including hair, feathers, and droppings. Heavy concentrations of organic dust are common in grain dryers, livestock pens, and swine buildings or other enclosed spaces. Long-term exposure to organic dust can lead to congestion, coughing or wheezing, sensitivity to dust, and frequent infections, such as colds, bronchitis, and pneumonia. Over time, exposure to organic dust can result in serious respiratory illnesses, such as Organic Dust Toxic Syndrome (ODTS) and Farmer's lung. Approximately one in 10 people working in agriculture will have an episode of ODTS, a temporary flu-like illness. Repeated exposure can cause Farmer's Lung, an allergic disease caused by mold spores which the body's immune system cannot counteract and may cause lung damage and result in death.

Employers have the primary responsibility for protecting the safety and health of their workers. Employees are responsible for following the safe work practices of their employers.

  • Be aware of the health effects of breathing toxic dust. If you are involved in any of the following areas you may need respiratory protection against organic dust:

    • Working in dusty fields and buildings.

    • Handling moldy hay.

    • Working in or uncapping silos.

    • Cleaning grain bins.

  • Be aware that wearing a dust mask when working in dusty conditions can help you avoid exposure to 'nuisance dust' but does not protect you against organic vapors.

    Combine creating dust
  • Wear any provided personal protective equipment (respirators - such as a NIOSH approved N95 air-purifying disposable particulate respirator), especially when working with grains or silage (uncapping or unloading silos, chopping bedding, shoveling grain, combining, or cleaning grain) in enclosed areas that may contain toxic dust.

  • Learn to recognize the symptoms for ODTS and when they can occur:

    • Symptoms include cough, fever, chills, body aches and pains, shortness of breath, and fatigue.

    • Symptoms occur 4 to 12 hours after exposure to high levels of organic dust and can last up to seven days.

    • Symptoms may occur after inhaling high levels of organic dust from moldy hay, silage, or grain.

  • Know what to do if symptoms occur:

    • Recognize early symptoms and seek medical help.

    • Inform your doctor about recent dust exposures.

  • Get training in the use and care of respiratory equipment, including how to proper fit test the equipment.

  • Be healthy and maintain good diet, rest, and exercise habits.

  • Avoid exposure to cigarette smoke in dusty environments.

Employers have the primary responsibility for protecting the safety and health of their workers. Employees are responsible for following the safe work practices of their employers.

  • Develop a "safety first" attitude. Follow safe work practices all the time and set a good example for others.

  • Provide workers with respirators to protect them from hazards associated with their work. There are many types of respirators and it is important to match the respirator to the job. Be sure to select a respirator is certified by NIOSH.

  • Supply air-purifying respirators (APRs) in toxic dust environments. The most commonly used respirator for farm work is an APR that removes contaminants from the air. Types of APRs include:

    • APRs with particulate filter can be used to protect workers from dusts, mists, and fumes.

    • APRs equipped with chemical cartridges can be used to protect workers from gases and vapors, including pesticides.

    • Gas masks can be used to protect workers from gases and vapors.

    • Powered air purifiers can be used to protect workers from dusts, mists, fumes, and chemicals.

  • Have a professional fit-test your workers' respirators.

  • Train employees in proper use of respirators.

  • Routinely clean and inspect all non-disposable respirators. Discard disposable respirators when they become dirty.

  • Use automated equipment whenever possible to move decayed materials that have high organic dust volumes.

  • Take preventative measures to minimize contamination:

    • Identify contaminants and hazards in the work environment and supply workers with the necessary protection.

    • Limit worker exposure to contaminants by rotating workers through tasks where they are exposed to high levels of dust.

    • Minimize exposure to dust by maintaining good ventilation in barns, silos, and other dusty areas before and during the work day.

    • Ensure that workers wear respirators, masks, and other protective equipment and train them in the proper use, fit, maintenance, and storage of the equipment.

    • Use mold inhibitors.

    • Bale hay, ensile crops, harvest, and store grain at recommended moisture content levels.

    • Dry grain properly before storage.

    • Use dust-minimizing practices, such as dust binding, misting, and spraying.

  • Follow these guidelines when working with moldy materials:

    Harvesting machines creating dust
    • Wet down feed before transferring to minimize dust.

    • Convert to mechanical or automated feeding or feed-handling systems.

    • Wet down the top of the silo before uncapping ensiled material.

    • Use wetting techniques when cleaning out grain bins or other dusty areas.

    • Always have workers wear respiratory protection when handling moldy or dusty materials.

    • Late summer - while cleaning out grain bins before filling with new grain.

    • Early winter - opening new silos may release mold spores from the top layer of silage.

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