TAKE THE DANGER OUT OF ABRASIVE BLASTING
Abrasive blasting, often known as “sand blasting” due to the fact that silica sand is the most commonly-used abrasive material today, is a technique developed in 1904 to clean metal surfaces, apply a texture to concrete, or prepare a surface for the application of another material such as paint. Operations involve accelerating abrasive material particles at high velocity through a nozzle aimed at a target surface. The technique is a model of human ingenuity with applications across several industries, but unfortunately is not without its own set of safety hazards.
The primary risk associated with abrasive blasting is respiratory hazards, wherein dusts formed by pulverized abrasive material or broken materials from the target surface become airborne with the potential for inhalation. While a wide variety of abrasive materials are used for blasting, silica sand remains the most prominent and can lead to a dangerous fungal growth in the lungs called “silicosis” if inhaled. Symptoms of silicosis can arise years after inhalation, a potentially deadly condition waiting dormant until it’s too late. Intense exposure can cause symptoms within a year, although prolonged general exposure is more common and takes an average of 10-15 years to induce symptoms. Symptoms may include difficulty breathing, fever, cough, and bluish skin, and can eventually become cancerous if left untreated. People with silicosis are also at a high risk of developing tuberculosis.
Occupational noise exposure is another significant safety hazard connected to abrasive blasting operations. Loud machinery as well as sound reverberating from the surface of impacted materials can pose serious risks to hearing, with long-term or permanent hearing loss being a possibility. Noise exposure can be controlled with a workplace hearing conservation program where noise levels are monitored and protective equipment or engineering controls are implemented.
Other abrasive blasting-related hazards can include slips, trips, and falls from accumulated dust particles (especially when a particularly slippery abrasive material is used, such as steel shot or glass), falls when working from heights, and fatigue. Workplaces where abrasive blasting operations occur should implement the appropriate protective systems and administrative controls to reduce or eliminate these hazards.
JOB HAZARD ANALYSIS
The most powerful tool at your disposal when combating safety hazards is a job hazard analysis. This analysis is performed before abrasive blasting operations begin, and is used to identify potential hazards in the work zone. By collecting a detailed account of these hazards, you can develop an effective strategy for controlling them. Your analysis will depend on your unique, specific workplace, but some things to look out for may include the abrasive material being used, the type of material being blasted, potential exposure to airborne contaminates for workers outside of and unrelated to the blasting operation, the integrity of equipment and ventilation systems, and clutter and fall hazards. The more thorough you are in your analysis, the more likely you are to identify a hazard which may have otherwise gone unnoticed. Afterwards, you can use your analysis results to select the most hazard-appropriate controls for your operation.
There are many possible methods for controlling abrasive blasting-related hazards which will depend on your workplace and the results of your job hazard analysis, but a few to think about include using a less toxic abrasive material, barriers or curtain walls, exhaust ventilation systems, scheduling blasting operations during times when the fewest number of other employees are on site, and not performing operations in conditions of high winds.
Much of the hazard prevention involved with abrasive blasting is in the hands of the worker. Personal protective equipment, housekeeping, and proper hygiene take away much of the risks associated with airborne dust particles. When airborne contaminates exceed the permissible exposure limit (PEL), all workers in the abrasive blasting area, whether directly involved with the blasting or providing a support role such as cleanup, are required to wear an air-supplied breathing helmet. Blasters should also use leather or heavy canvas gloves with full forearm protection, aprons or coveralls, hearing protection, and safety shoes or boots.
Workers should clean up as they go, attending to dust spills immediately using either wet methods or HEPA vacuuming in order to prevent settled dust from dispersing into the air. Equipment must be inspected before and after used, and maintained and stored properly. Workers should not bring contaminated clothing or equipment home; showering and handwashing stations should be available onsite to accommodate. Eating, drinking, or using tobacco with contaminated hands or clothing, or within the blasting area, must not be permitted.
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