The Nilfisk Safe-Pak HEPA-filtered collection container isolates hazardous materials without contaminating a cleanroom vacuum or personnel. Instead of changing a filter, the Safe-Pak is removed and discarded. (Nilfisk-Advance, Inc. Industrial Vacuum Division photo)

Industrial Vacuums: Your First Line of Defense Against Hazardous Materials

Companies should work directly with an industrial vacuum supplier to assess facilities' needs and goals.

You have dirt. Every facility does. It's a problem in industry -- potentially, an expensive one and, worse yet, a dangerous one. Many industries use hazardous materials in the manufacture of products or must deal with toxic dust and debris as a byproduct of the production process. The threat to worker safety ranges from airborne dust that irritates the nose, eyes, and lungs to dangerous potent compounds and active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs).

In order to keep this hazardous material away from workers, it must be collected with industrial vacuums, but that is only half the battle. Once safely collected inside the vacuum, toxic dust and debris must be removed and discarded. This poses an extra risk for cleaning and housekeeping personnel. The most advanced industrial vacuums are engineered with safety in mind and feature special options that enable cleaning teams to quickly and efficiently collect dangerous material and easily dispose of it without ever risking contact.

Sweeping and blowing debris with compressed air can make housekeeping problems worse, spreading dirt and pathogens around and sending them into the air. Dangerous dust becomes an airborne irritant or, worse, a potential explosion hazard.

Bacteria can end up compacted into nooks and crannies and hidden atop overhead racks, ductwork, and dropped ceilings. Manual cleaning tools are virtually useless in these situations. Industrial vacuums, however, extricate debris and are more efficient in the process. They also ensure better air quality and offer improved ergonomics for housekeeping personnel.

You won't find the vacuum you need at big box stores. The utility vacuum used in your garage will not cut it in a commercial operation any more than a home dishwasher could cut it in a restaurant. What's more, using shop-style vacuums in industrial situations may violate OSHA standards. Industrial vacuums are the safe choice when it comes to compliance and hygiene. Nationally recognized testing laboratories such as the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) approve vacuums, so companies can be assured they are safe for NFPA-classified environments and that every component meets strict standards for preventing shocks and fire.

One highly specialized type of industrial vacuum is a certified explosion-proof unit that collects explosive dusts, such as sugar, flour, metals, and more. These vacuums are fully grounded and constructed entirely of non-sparking materials from the outer shell to the internal mechanicals, including the motor, switches, and filters.

There are also specialized wet/dry vacuums recommended for food processing facilities. Byproducts of production, such as grease, oils, and organic fluids, and incidental spills can create hazardous conditions around production areas, putting employees in harm's way. Wet-collection capabilities and oil-resistant accessories are essential for full remediation. Units with stainless steel or polyethylene collection tanks are recommended for several reasons. First, these materials inhibit or resist bacterial growth inside the bin. Second, they can be easily washed or autoclaved. This helps reduce employee exposure. In addition, wet/dry industrial vacuums must have a grounded bypass motor to avoid electrical hazards.

Advanced Collection Options for Maximum Safety
Polyliners are a great option for dust-free collection and disposal of nuisance and hazardous materials. Large amounts of dust and debris can be collected and easily removed from the tank by lifting out the entire liner. Conductive polyliners are also available. This option allows for the safe collection of combustible dust while keeping the vacuum grounded and without creating arcs or sparks.

Paper bags -- or dust bags -- also provide an easy way to remove collected materials. These bags are the first stage of filtration in more advanced industrial vacuums and deliver much higher performance than the name might imply. Standard bags are made of a two-ply material. The inner lining captures fine particles while air passes through the outer cellulose layer. Paper bags feature a filtration efficiency of 99.7 percent at 3 microns and will capture the bulk of large particles for easy collection and disposal.

Another option is the electrostatic paper bag. An electrostatically charged inner lining comprised of meltdown polypropylene delivers finer filtration capabilities, retaining 97.8 percent of particles down to 1.5 microns.

A relatively new update to the polyliner is the "endless" bag. Once filled, this versatile collection option can be cut and sealed. The collected material is trapped in a sealed section of the bag for safe, dust-free disposal. The rest of the bag can then be dispensed to the desired length for new use. This system has many uses in the food and pharmaceutical industries.

The most cutting-edge vacuums for pharmaceutical facilities are built for ultra-secure dangerous material collection. They feature safe-change systems that collect high-potency APIs and other hazardous materials in a sealed, disposable, HEPA-filtered ABS plastic container. When the container is full, it is simply removed and replaced; personnel have no contact with the materials inside.

The Filtration Difference
In addition to collection options, industrial vacuums employ multi-stage filtration systems to collect hazardous material and keep it away from operators. The second stage captures leftover particulate with the main filter before it reaches the motor, protecting it and extending its lifespan. The final stage filters exhausted air, ensuring air quality in the facility. The following are the most common exhaust filters:

  • HEPA, High Efficiency Particulate Air: HEPA filters must satisfy certain standards of efficiency, such as those set by the U.S. Department of Energy. It must remove 99.97 percent of particles greater than 0.3 microns.
  • ULPA, Ultra Low Penetration Air: An ULPA filter captures 99.999 percent of particles down to and including those sized 0.12 microns.

The FDA recommends pharmaceutical producers use HEPA vacuums, ULPA vacuums, and cleanroom vacuums as part of standard operating procedures. Other industries may not need ULPA filtration but would benefit from specialized main filters that work better with certain types of waste. For example, Gore-Tex® membrane filters are non-stick with a smooth PTFE membrane, making them well suited to gummy debris. AES polycomposite filters are super tough and ideal for abrasive particles, such as cement, steel, and lead.

Because they are purpose-built, industrial vacuums offer features that make them easier to operate in workplace situations, minimizing the risk of operator injuries. For example, some models offer wheeled collection containers that are mechanically raised and lowered. Tip-and-pour systems also eliminate heavy lifting and can prevent back injuries and muscle strains.

Wet-collection units with overfill prevention mechanisms, such as a liquid sensor or float valve, automatically shut the vacuum off when it's full, protecting workers and equipment. Other wet-collection units offer easy draining and/or pump-out methods that eliminate excessive bending and streamline the disposal and cleaning processes.

Good Housekeeping is Good Business
Companies should work directly with an industrial vacuum supplier to assess facilities' needs and goals. The supplier also should provide employees with training on vacuum use and proper maintenance to ensure housekeeping staff use the tools safely and effectively. Good housekeeping makes for a safe workplace and ensures your operation is in compliance with government and industry regulations.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 OHS issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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