Occupational hygiene at a drum composting plant in Hyvinkää, Finland

Refuse disposal and treatment must be safe for employees. Organic dust of waste origin, perhaps containing microbes, may be harmful to health. Microbes, especially fungi but also thermophilic Actinomycetes bacteria, may cause allergy and asthma (Terho et al. 1993; Madigan et al. 1997). Usually fungi cause hypersensitivity (Madigan et al. 1997) and the most common syndrome is allergic rhinitis (Millner et al. 1994). In Finland, for example 1-2% of the population is allergic to Penicillium and Cladosporium, both common fungi in air (Haahtela & Reijula, 1997). Superficial mycoses and subcutaneous mycoses are other common diseases (Madigan et al. 1997). Contracting a more serious sickness largely depends on an individual's disposition and the amount and time of exposure. Developing a hypersensitivity pneumonitis, for example, requires a frequent exposure to microbe concentrations of 105-106 cfu/m3 or else a powerful, short exposure to a very high concentration, of perhaps 108 cfu/m3 (Millner et al. 1994). Excluding allergy and asthma, the secondary systemic mycoses caused by fungi are extremely rare. Fungi cause serious infections only in individuals with impaired defence mechanisms (Madigan et al. 1997).

Endotoxins are pieces of the cortical substance of Gram-negative bacteria and are released in large amount in cell lysis. Personal exposure to air-borne endotoxins may cause fever, headache, exhaustion and other flu-like symptoms (Boutin and Moline, 1987; Dutkiewicz, 1997, Heederik & Douwes, 1997; Madigan et al. 1997). These symptoms are also called ODTS, Organic Dust Toxic Syndrome. Chronic endotoxin exposure may lead to chronic bronchitis and reduce lung function (Heederik & Douwes, 1997). Volatile and often odorous compounds may also be harmful and cause headache and nausea. Powerful noise may cause tinnitus and temporary or permanent hearing defect. Noise may also raise blood pressure and cause nausea, insomnia and stress. It may interfere with communication, and increase the risk of accidents (Jauhiainen et al. 1997).

Occupational hygiene in landfill areas, windrow composting areas (Tolvanen et al. 1998) and sewage treatment plants has been investigated in Finland earlier. Bad workplace hygiene has been shown to increase the risk of falling sick and to reduce job satisfaction. With new technologies offering more effective ways to treat wastes, it is important to determine if there still are problems in occupational hygiene. Concentrations may be much higher inside waste treatment plants than in the open waste treatment areas investigated earlier. If careful attention is paid to working hygiene, the problems noted above can be prevented and the costs associated with employee absence and sick leave can be reduced.

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