Although most employers make an effort to comply with regulatory agencies, few have any idea as to how much their company is losing from worker illness, work accidents and damaged plant machinery. They know the cost of their insurance, but that’s only the tip of an iceberg.
Together these overheads slowly erode a company’s competitive edge, but that’s nothing compared to the fallout from The Big One—an actual catastrophe. As we know, the odd thing about catastrophes is that you never see them coming but they were always avoidable in hindsight.
THE BIG ONES
Almost everyone knows that dust can explode and yet almost every factory, workshop and warehouse have dust. Even those who scrupulously clean up often do it in ways that are ineffective or actually exacerbating the risks.
In 2009, workers dismantling an empty cement storage tank in Thomaston, Maine, swept cement dust, wood and fiberglass foam into a tidy pile. When this started smoldering the smoke slowly filled the storage tank itself, which suddenly exploded with a force heard 11 miles away.
The West Pharmaceutical plant in North Carolina manufactured prophylactics and similar items from synthetic rubber. Maintenance personnel regularly cleaned all dust from around machinery, but room ventilation was lifting dust up above the suspended ceilings. When a small disturbance of dust occurred above a light fixture, the first explosion disturbed enough dust to cause a second that caused a third. Debris was propelled two miles distant, where it started additional fires that raged for two days. Six people died.
In 2008, explosions ripped through a sugar factory in Georgia, killing 14 people. Even though sugar was routinely cleaned up, a hot conveyor bearing set off an initial small explosion, which in turn threw up more dust that also ignited, throwing up yet more dust, generating another chain reaction. Fines alone came to over $6 million. Destruction and lost production caused far more financial damage.
In 2003, an explosion gutted the CTA Acoustics factory in Corbin, Ky., killing seven. The company produced fiberglass insulation for the automotive industry. It was considered fire-proof. Investigators concluded the explosion was fueled by fiberglass resin dust ignited by a nearby oven.
The Pepcon plant in Henderson, Nev., used to produce a simple chemical called ammonium perchlorate, which is non-flammable and was thought completely safe. It was routinely swept up with other dust and pallet debris and tipped into waste bins. A small fire near a bin triggered an initial explosion that cracked a gas pipe. Then the combination of gas and perchlorate caused the big one. The shockwave measured 3.5 on the Richter scale.
Something all these factories had in common was that they had cleaning routines and ventilation systems. What they did not have was professionally designed industrial fume extraction systems or proper industrial dust collection systems.
Sweeping up dust stirs up more dust. Disturbing dust that has accumulated on roof beams or suspended ceilings can be a deadly mistake. Ventilation systems also tempt employers into a false sense of security. Ordinary ventilation systems that are not part of purpose-designed industrial dust collection systems will almost certainly concentrate dust in hard-to-access ducts and other damaging places. In time, hidden dust accumulations pose serious risks of fire, explosion or toxic air quality.
Fire and explosions are, of course, dramatic. The costs are easy to calculate because a multitude of insurance companies will do that for you, but there are insidious dangers even more likely to be costing your company and employees dearly.
The cost of harmful substance exposure in the workplace is hard to determine because it manifests in a variety of ways, including reduced production, sick pay, lost expertise, agency fees, training replacement staff, bad publicity and (only occasionally) regulatory fines and lawsuits. However, it is not hard to understand that it is taking place.
Modern products are ever more synthetic and the range of substances they contain is an increasing concern for consumers, workers and employers. The number of illnesses with confirmed links to particular chemicals gets longer all the time. Many cause cancers, lung damage or diabetes. Some even cause sexual dysfunction and mental impairment.
The connection between serious allergies such as asthma and airborne pollutants is now firmly established. In the U.S. alone, asthma causes 11 deaths every day and the cost of asthma in the U.S. (including medical care, absenteeism and deaths) is over $80 billion, according to the CDC. In fact, the agency estimates that 8.7 million workdays are missed each year because of the effects of asthma.
Many employers don’t realize how small the quantities of fumes or toxic dust need to be to cause an effect. For example, an industry that has recently been subject to scrutiny is the beauty salon. Airborne chemicals often encountered in nail bars and beauty salons include butyl acetate, ethyl acetate, toluene, formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, isopropyl acetate, acetonitrile and ammonia. There are serious concerns about the harmful long-term consequences for shop employees. No business is too small to have a problem.
Metal workers such as welders are at considerable toxic risk from metallic dusts and fumes. Short-term effects include the flu-like “welders fever”—rarely taken seriously enough by the employer or the worker. However, it’s now recognized there are serious long-term cancer and breathing risks from inhaling the fumes and dust generated by grinding stones, metallic dust and welding fumes.
Electronics companies face a similar problem. While some operations are conducted in “clean rooms,” this does not protect workers in very close proximity to manual or semi-manual soldering operations. A solder fume extraction system needs to be purpose-designed. Ventilation and general air filtering alone are not enough.
Government regulations and industry-specific standards such as welding fume extraction regulations are clear that employers have responsibilities to tackle the risks properly. However, there is no guarantee that welding fume ventilation policies will do any good unless the welding fume ventilation system has been installed by a professional engineer. Fumes aren’t visible and poorly functioning ventilation systems add to the problems—by relocating hazards to where they’re harder to control.
Moving accumulations of fumes or dust from where they are most apparent is a mere cosmetic exercise if they aren’t effectively captured. Shooing the problem away with brushes and blowers makes the dangers harder to contain and a thinly spread toxin will subject more people to more perpetual chronic exposure.
Cancers and breathing problems caused by dust and fumes can take years to develop, by which time workers may have changed employers or even occupation. This does nothing to diminish the damage inflicted on businesses. Each business simply suffers from the negligence of others—spreading the harm into the economy and population at large.
The days when known risks could be “buried” and ignored (as asbestos was) are gone. Big Data is increasingly exposing the connections between cause and effect, exposing companies to compensation claims. Industrial fume extraction systems offer a solid defense against the risk of dust and fumes. EHS
Paul Riddick is co-founder and technical director of fume and dust extraction specialists Vodex (www.vodex.co.uk).