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Common Safety Issues With Poor Indoor Air Quality at Manufacturing Facilities

Maintaining good indoor air quality (IAQ) is crucial for the safety of employees, the efficiency of operations and adherence to regulatory standards. However, it is a constant challenge for manufacturers.

The following frequently asked questions provide insights into the causes, safety hazards and compliance issues associated with poor IAQ. They also provide recommended solutions for filtering airborne particles to improve IAQ at manufacturing sites.

What is IAQ?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, IAQ refers to the air quality within and around buildings and structures impacting the health and comfort of occupants, equipment efficiency, process performance and product quality.

While there are many sources of indoor air pollutants, the Occupation Safety and Health Administration  (OSHA) categorizes them into three areas: biological, chemical and particles. Dust falls into the particle area, which is the major contributor to poor IAQ in manufacturing facilities.

Many industries generate dust through their processes, materials and end products. Some dust particles can be toxic, leading to serious health problems. For example, consider the aftermath of 9/11, where thousands of residents and responders suffered chronic health conditions due to toxic dust exposure.

OSHA requires that manufacturing facilities maintain safe working environments free from hazards that could cause harm or injury. Compliance with OSHA standards involves removing potentially toxic dust from processing areas to protect the health and safety of workers.

Understanding the sources of toxic dust and how to control them is essential for maintaining optimal IAQ, creating healthier environments and ensuring safer manufacturing operations.

What industries generate airborne dusts that diminish indoor air quality?

Industrial dust, also known as process dust, is generated during a facility's manufacturing or processing operations. Chemical processors, pharmaceutical production, metalworking, welding, and woodworking processes create the most at-risk dust.

  • Chemical Processing Facilities: Operations such as coating, blending, crushing, milling, mixing and pelletizing processes generates airborne dust, which can lead to health hazards and combustible dust incidents.
  • Pharmaceutical Companies: The use of active ingredients in making tablets and other solid-dose products can release toxic and combustible dust into the environment.
  • Metalworking Plants: Processes like welding, thermal cutting and sanding can produce tiny metal particles that are particularly toxic, including lead, iron, nickel and chromium.
  • Woodworking Operations: Sawmills, furniture makers and other manufacturers of wood products generate fine wood particles from cutting, routing, chopping, and molding. These microscopic wood fibers not only pose health risks but can also seep into machinery, creating dirty environments that increase the risk of fires and explosions.
  • Food Processing: Dust generated from solid ingredients such as sugar, starch, spices and flour is combustible and can contaminate products, causing health problems for consumers.
  • Packaging Manufacturers: The production of paperboard, metal and plastic packaging materials creates dust.

What are the health risks associated with poor IAQ?

Poor IAQ means that the air is laden with dust particles that can land on or be inhaled by workers. Depending on their chemical composition, these particles can cause various health issues such as eye irritation, dermatitis and allergic reactions, including rashes and asthma. The severity of the issues is correlates to the duration of exposure.

If dust is inhaled, individuals may experience respiratory problems like coughing, wheezing, bronchitis, and even lung cancer. The type of dust particles significantly affects the severity of lung injuries. Metals and crystalline silica, for example, are highly toxic. If swallowed, silica particles can release toxic substances.

Acute health problems associated with toxic dust can lead to chronic diseases over time. For instance, a persistent cough can develop into chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

To mitigate these risks, OSHA  has established permissible exposure limits (PELs) for workers' exposure to certain airborne dust during an eight-hour shift. For instance, the PEL for hard and soft wood dust is 5 mg/m³ over an eight-hour time-weighted average (TWA) and short-term exposure limit (STEL) is 10 mg/m3.

What other safety risks are associated with poor IAQ?

Poor IAQ means that dust particles are airborne, and dust is an explosive material. When it is present in large volumes, it can be ignited by a spark or other ignition source, causing a combustible dust explosion that destroys property, causes injuries and shuts down operations. 

Toxic dust that lingers in the air can also cross contaminate manufactured products, resulting in public health threats and leading to recalls and possible lawsuits.

How does IAQ affect employees, equipment and productivity?

Maintaining a healthy workplace with good IAQ can improve employee well-being, retention and productivity. Research shows that spending just $40 per person annually on IAQ can result in a $6,500 increase in employee output.

Poor IAQ means that invisible dust particles are suspended in the air, and they can remain suspended for long periods, eventually migrating to HVAC systems. This causes poor airflow and reintroduces dust back into the workplace. Dust-laden air also forces HVAC and processing equipment to work harder, reducing efficiency.

Dust accumulation on condensers can breed bacteria and mold, causing musty odors that can permeate products and are unpleasant for workers. Dust settling on heating coils can cause a burning smell. Dust landing on electrical devices can cause them to overheat and reduce contact in relays and switches.

When combined with even small amounts of moisture, dust can corrode equipment components such as electrical motors. This combination also creates slipping hazards, leading to trips and falls that cause over 700 fatalities annually and a quarter of a million nonfatal injuries involving time away from work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What regulations govern IAQ and industrial dust?

OSHA General Duty Clause Section 5(a)(1) mandates that employers identify and mitigate workplace hazards. They are required to maintain records identifying all dust generated in their facility. If the dust is flammable or explosive, compliance with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards is necessary.

OSHA has established PEL thresholds for airborne contaminants in the workplace. If air quality testing reveals that a facility exceeds OSHA exposure limits, workers are being exposed to poor IAQ. OSHA PELs are based on an eight-hour TWA for numerous dust types and are listed in OSHA's annotated PEL tables Z-1, Z-2, and Z-3.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provides recommended exposure limits (RELs) for hazardous substances, including dusts. These limits are generally stricter than OSHA's PELs. While NIOSH RELs are not regulatory requirements, they serve as recommended guidelines for upper exposure limits.

How do manufacturers correct poor IAQ?

Ventilation systems alone are often insufficient to remove airborne particulates like dust from the environment. Industrial dust collectors can effectively capture dust at its source before it becomes airborne. These collectors work by cycling dust-laden air through a series of filter cartridges selected for their ability to trap dust particles of specific sizes and makeup.

High-efficiency media filter cartridges are used to capture toxic dust because they can remove very fine dust particles down to 0.3 microns with 99.97% efficiency. A high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter can be used as a secondary filter to extend the life of the primary filter and meet stringent OSHA PEL requirements.

If the primary filtration system does not include a HEPA filter, a secondary HEPA filter can be used downstream to prevent dust from being discharged into the atmosphere and to prevent contamination of the return air.

How do manufacturers determine what airborne particles are in the facility?

Having good IAQ means that the air is free of toxic or hazardous particles. So how does a manufacturer know if the dust particles in its air are toxic or hazardous? They need to determine exactly what dust is generated during their manufacturing processes. This information is also required to design an effective system to mitigate processing dust.

A third-party testing lab can assess if the dust produced is benign, toxic, combustible or a combination of these. The test results will provide information on particle size, shape, abrasiveness and moisture level. These parameters are essential for selecting the appropriate equipment, filter media and ancillary controls.

For example, if a test identifies toxic dust such as fumed silica, a high-efficiency filter chemically treated with an additional layer of nanofibers or PTFE will be required. Identifying moist dust is also important, as sticky dust can cause certain filter cartridges to become clogged and ineffective.

Seek expert advice

Controlling dust generated by manufacturing processes is essential for maintaining IAQ, protecting worker health and ensuring smooth manufacturing operations. Consulting a third-party expert such as Camfil Air Pollution Control can provide valuable guidance in mitigating toxic dust through the proper selection and installation of a dust collection system.

After evaluating the type of dust to be removed, Camfil personnel use their knowledge of NFPA standards and OSHA requirements to recommend a compliant and effective dust collection system. They then conduct an on-site visit to take measurements and determine a system configuration tailored to the facility's size, HVAC system and operations. Before installation, they review the recommended dust collectors and ancillary equipment with in-house personnel.

Maintaining safe IAQ is both a lifesaving and legal obligation. A high-efficiency dust collection system is an important component in filtering toxic and other airborne dusts to meet your air quality goals.

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