The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has identified several materials that could seriously injure construction workers using abrasive blasting in the construction industry. During abrasive blasting, workers employ a powerful stream of compressed air or water, mixed with an abrasive material like crystalline sand or steel shot to clean, prepare, or coat various surfaces. This powerful stream of compressed air and water, combined with the abrasive materials, can create large amounts of noise and toxic dust, which can leave workers with toxic substance exposure leading to potential lung damage, hearing loss, and certain cancers.
The good news from OSHA is that employers can help construction workers avoid the harmful effects of abrasive blasting. Simply implementing engineering and administrative controls, making personal protective equipment available, using alternative blasting materials, and most importantly, ensuring that workers are properly trained in safe handling and working procedures can prevent or significantly reduce workplace injuries.
Alternative Abrasive Materials with Less Toxicity are Available to Prevent Health Hazards
The most commonly used abrasive blasting materials include silica and garnet sand, coal, nickel, and copper slag, crushed glass or glass beads, steel shot and steel grit, and iron ore. The materials made from sand, glass, and slag contain harmful substances that when inhaled by workers, can cause serious lung damage, breathing problems, and even lung cancer. Slags can also contain toxic substances such as arsenic, beryllium, and cadmium. Fortunately, less toxic alternatives such as dry ice, plastic beads, baking soda, high-pressured water, and ground biodegradable materials such as walnut shells, corn cobs, and recycled glass that are free from silica can greatly reduce the health hazards for workers.
Several other safety measures can be employed during blasting to help reduce the risk of exposure to harmful toxins. Using water instead of compressed air will reduce the amount of toxic dust created in the blasting procedure. The use of barriers and plastic sheeting with proper ventilation can contain the dust and prevent exposure to workers outside of the operation. Exhaust ventilation systems should be used to further contain the toxic dust. Scheduling blasting work outside of normal work hours and eliminating the procedure on windy days can considerably reduce the risk of exposure.
Proper Training and Personal Protective Equipment are Essential Safety Measures
Even with the highest level of attention to alternative materials and containment strategies, nothing is more important in protecting the health of workers involved in abrasive blasting than proper training and the use of personal protective equipment. Containers must be clearly marked, and work areas must provide workers with safety data sheets clearly outlining the risks of using such materials. Personal hygiene habits need to be demonstrated to workers to avoid contamination of non-work areas and accidental ingestion of toxic dust. Employees who regularly wash their hands and face before eating or drinking, and who take measures to avoid cross contamination of work clothes and clean clothes can significantly improve their safety as well as those outside the work area.
The availability and use of personal protective equipment such as ear plugs, headphones, and respirators are essential to protecting employees’ hearing and physical health. NIOSH approved respirators that fully cover the worker’s head and shoulder area must be worn to fully protect against inhalation of toxic dust. Hearing protection, elbow-length leather gloves, body aprons, and safety footwear are highly recommended for full body protection.
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