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Worker Killed by Walnut Blasting Particles

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

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An Edmonton, Alberta, man has died due to exposure to walnut blasting materials used to remove old paint from a fire station, leading to a call for regulating such products.

Justin Matthews went to the Rossdale Fire Station Oct. 2 to inspect the air quality as part of his job; a company had recently been working inside to blast old lead paint off the walls as part of a renovation, reports Global News Canada.

His family reported that Matthews, was inside the building for 20 minutes before he began to experience difficulty breathing. He walked outside and collapsed shortly after, going into anaphylactic shock.

Allergic Reaction

“He inhaled probably a lot of walnut particles from the walnut blasting compound that was all over there,” explained the worker's father, David Matthews.

His mother believes that her son was not aware of the risk, noted Global News; she said that Matthews had developed a nut allergy as a child.

Matthews was rushed to the University of Alberta hospital, but was unresponsive and soon lapsed into a coma. His family chose to take him off life support five days later.

In light of his passing, Matthews’ family is calling for regulation of walnut blasting materials, including signage at sites where the media is used.

"You can find walnut shells in tires, in sandblasting," Shari Reklow, Matthews' sister, told CBC News. "It's in places you don't even think to look look for it. If you're not made properly aware, how can you protect yourself? How can you protect your family?

"It's taken very seriously as a food product. How many times do you see may contain nuts, or come into contact with nuts in the factory? How many times do you see that on the labels?"

Walnut Products in Blasting

The use of walnut shell products is on the rise as a safer and more sustainable blasting media, in lieu of more hazardous abrasives such as silica sand. 

"During sandblasting operations, the silica can get very fine, and become what's called respirable, which means you can breathe it in and it gets onto your lungs and can cause things like silicosis, lung cancers and other respiratory ailments,” said Alberta Labor spokesperson Trent Bancarz.

According to McKinley Resources Inc., walnut shells are used in blasting for the removal of graffiti, and smoothing a roughened surface or vice versa. This form of blasting can also be used to removed baked-on deposits from ferrous metals like iron and steel.

Industry Regulation

According to Bancarz, Matthews’ death was an unusual incident.

"There isn't anything specifically in the health and safety code or any of the legislation that particularly mentions walnuts individually, but we do have laws in place in general that require employers to take all reasonable steps to keep workers safe at the job,” Bancarz went on to tell CBC News. “And also workers are to be informed of any potential danger or potential hazards in the workplace so that they're forewarned and they can take the steps to avoid them."

The CBC confirmed that an investigation by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety is investigating Matthews’ death. The inquiry must be completed within two years.

Editor's note: This story was one of our most popular of 2017, and appeared in our Readers' Choice edition on Dec. 27. Since its original publication, there has been no official report from Alberta OSH on the cause of the incident or any implications for the industry; the agency's investigation is ongoing.


Tagged categories: Abrasive blasting; Abrasives; Accidents; Health and safety; Surface preparation

Comment from WAN MOHAMAD NOR WAN ABDUL RAHMAN, (10/31/2017, 2:41 AM)

Condolence to the family.

Comment from Mario Colica, (10/31/2017, 3:59 AM)

Most probably the cause was Pb in the paints .

Comment from Mike Michaelis, (10/31/2017, 8:09 AM)

Mario: Immediate death from Pb and not from a nut allergy? You are a testament to how clueless most people are on this topic. If you or god forbid, your children had but allergies, you would be much more aware. Please visit and educate yourself

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (10/31/2017, 8:49 AM)

Immediate death would be extremely unlikely if lead paint were the source. Plenty of people alive today blasted lead paint for long timeperiods with very little protection. Probably shortened their lives and caused a variety of maladies - but not near-instant death.

Comment from Thomas Van Hooser, (10/31/2017, 8:58 AM)

Good item to add to Risk Assessments and JSA's.

Comment from matthew duncan, (10/31/2017, 9:46 AM)

And not only for the Commercial Industry, but the availability of walnut shells for the home hobbyist is increasing; even Harbor Freight sells it. I know several people with nut allergies that might not make the connection between blasting media and a food allergy...

Comment from Michael Halliwell, (10/31/2017, 11:16 AM)

My condolences to the family. Mario: lead, silica and asbestos exposure are not known for acute toxicity (i.e. causing "knock down" type of events), anaphylaxis or rapid onset coma. These three workplace hazards generally have long-term or long-time onset health issues and are definitely not the case here. With more and more people having allergies to nuts, soy and latex and more and more companies turning to "greener" products containing nuts, soy and latex, I can see this becoming a bigger and bigger issue at job sites. I know some folks don't like admitting they have allergies, but these days they can be worth noting on the JHA (and where you keep your epinephrine auto-injector if you have a severe allergy).

Comment from Thomas Van Hooser, (10/31/2017, 11:47 AM)

Would be interesting to see what the MSDS says about this abrasive in the health and fire prevention sections.

Comment from john sedor, (10/31/2017, 1:30 PM)

The news surrounding this tragic and unfortunate workplace fatality understandably focuses on the walnut abrasive and the allergic reaction to it. But, is there more to the story? If he was exposed to the airborne spent walnut abrasive used to remove the lead paint, wasn’t he [likely] exposed above the Occupational Exposure Limit to airborne lead!? And while such an exposure is likely more a chronic issue than the acute walnut reaction, it makes you wonder: How did this 33 year old man get into the lead work area without prior training, medical surveillance, and [the obvious] respiratory protection? Was the abatement contractor properly trained and/or outfitted to employ correct occupational and environmental procedures re lead abatement? Did the City or GC mandate proper procedures, or did they go $cheap$? Makes you wonder …

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (11/1/2017, 8:19 AM)

So, I looked up an SDS for a random walnut blast media (I have no idea if it is the same media) - a quick review shows no warnings about nut allergies, and only suggests a dust mask for respiratory protection. A second one does mention allergy risk early in the document:

Comment from Thomas Van Hooser, (11/1/2017, 9:16 AM)

Just for info I sent OSHA a letter regarding this subject and government rules that need to be considered for such operations and addressing Allergy Hazards.

Comment from Ron Truman, (11/2/2017, 11:16 AM)

I would like to see a follow up article on this, with info on worker protection. If this man had allergy to nuts, and he was inhaling small particles, he was a dead man walking after a short period of time. You would think that a government agency would have had taken the proper precautions to alert anyone entering the area for inspections. Nuts or nut byproduct, still extremely dangerous for someone with allergies to them. Food products that do not even contain nuts still put a warning on their labels if another product is produced in the same facility that does contain nuts. Just Crazy!!!

Comment from Catherine Brooks of Eco-Strip, (11/2/2017, 8:05 PM)

To me the liability is with the contractor using ANY product to inform the customer of the potential risk. This is an education issue for blasting equipment sales and rental companies, abrasive manufactures, contractors specializing in blasting, etc. How many companies actually use walnut shells as abrasives? Surely a more efficient way to prevent allergic reactions rather than create a new law is to work with the source manufacturers of walnut shell abrasives. The issue is who will lead the charge? Let's not rely on government agencies' slow wheels of progress to make it happen.

Comment from William Feliciano, (11/3/2017, 4:15 PM)

My condolences to the family. How sad to read this...and sobering. There's been a tendency toward using more of this type abrasive to remove graffiti, profile galvanizing, etc. Hate to think what would happen if a large scale contract using walnut shells was being performed near a school or other sensitive receptor, and fugitive dust was allowed to escape. This incident definitely is a wake up call. Hopefully this young man's death won't be in vain and results in a movement within the industry to better outline the hazards of certain (organic) abrasives. There could have been a lack of proper controls at this particular jobsite, but from what I understand from parents of children with nut allergies, just microscopic amounts can trigger a reaction. Not sure if the controls used on a typical blast job would have removed the walnut down to the levels needed to prevent an allergic reaction.

Comment from Michael Halliwell, (11/6/2017, 11:25 AM)

William, I hope you are right and this sort of incident moves forward the awareness. Catherine is right too...the contractor has the responsibility to let all those coming on to the job site know what the hazards are, even to allergens. Ron and William, I don't know if a P100/HEPA equipped respirator (APR or PAPR) may have been sufficient in this case or whether the employee should have simply refused the work due to the allergy concern and had someone no allergic to nuts carry out the air sampling, but without the info that walnut products were used, neither option was available and this tragedy happened.

Comment from Ron Ward, (11/7/2017, 1:55 PM)

Let me get this correct - Mr Matthews was sent to do air sampling at a lead paint removal site - to test for lead amounts in the air - would not one of the first things he would have been trained to looked at was the abrasive being used - as an inspector would he not look at the abrasive being used since he would need to know what his sampling included? And would he have not have worn proper PPE? And was he not looking to see that the blasting crew had their proper PPE as well. And who was the job supervisor that allowed anyone, including an inspector, to enter a lead paint removal containment site without the proper breathing, eye, hearing and other protection?

Comment from Michael Halliwell, (11/8/2017, 11:53 AM)

Can't say I disagree, Ron...even if this was a post clean-up clearance sample (i.e. no blasting, spoil/debris removed, supposedly ready for "normal" occupation again) - which is the impression I get from local media - you'd think it would be safety first until the air quality confirmation was in hand. Unfortunately, considering what I have seen on some job sites, it's the assumption that everything is fine that can be lethal. We'll have to wait until Alberta OHS is done their investigation to find out more.

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