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Does exposure to bentonite dust during tunnel hyperbaric interventions increase health risks for compressed air workers? A prospective qualitative and quantitative safety assessment

Introduction: The mining and tunneling industries are historically associated with hazardous exposures that result in significant occupational health concerns. Occupational respiratory exposures causing pneumoconiosis and silicosis are of great concern, silicosis being non-curable. This work demonstrates that compressed-air workers (CAWs) performing tunnel hyperbaric interventions (HIs) may be at risk for hazards related to bentonite exposure, increasing the likelihood of developing harmful illnesses including cancer. Bentonite dust inhalation may result in respiratory levels of silica exceeding acceptable industrial hygiene standards.

Methods: A qualitative observational exposure assessment was conducted on CAWs while they were performing their HI duties. This was followed by quantitative data collection using personal and area air sample techniques. The results were analyzed and interpreted using standard industrial hygiene principles and guidelines from NIOSH and OSHA.

Results: Our work suggests bentonite dust exposure may be an emerging particulate matter concern among CAWs in the tunneling industry. Aerosolized bentonite particles may have potential deleterious effects that include pneumoconiosis and silicosis. Silicosis can result in the development of pulmonary carcinoma.

Conclusions: The modern tunneling industry and required hyperbaric interventional tasks represent a potential public health and occupational concern for CAWs. This paper introduces the modern tunneling industry and the duties of CAWs, the hazardous environment in which they perform their duties, and describes the risks and potential harmful health effects associated with these hazardous exposures.