Often Overlooked: Safety in Abrasive Blasting


Following the proper safety guidelines when working with abrasive blasting can both prevent injury and long-term illness.

Kevin Guth, Principal for KGC, where he oversees all aspects of business and technical operations, has spent the past 21 years providing senior oversight and management of KGC’s most complex industrial hygiene and hazardous waste management projects. Recently, he provided his insight on the salient points on safety in abrasive blasting and what can be done to remedy what’s most often forgotten.

PaintSquare Daily News: If you had to boil down the points in safety in abrasive to, say, five, what would you consider to be the most important?

Kevin Guth: I’ll just state from the start that it’s really hard to condense it to five. […] Abrasive blasting, to me as an industrial hygienist, can be distilled to three broad hazard classifications: chemical, physical and ergonomics. Once again, as an industrial hygienist, I would identify key blasting safety points through the lens of controlling exposure to those previously mentioned hazards.

For the first point, employers should control exposure to particulate matter and gases, which is the focus in our industry right now. There is also preventing exposure to dust, including silica and heavy metals we get from the abrasive blast media and the structure and the coating system being removed. The gases are also from typically from breathing air because we’re using compressed air off of compressors. That would be the first point: to control particulate matter and gases because the risk of overexposure could lead to lead poisoning and occupational-induced lung diseases, such as silicosis and carbon monoxide poisoning.

The second point is reducing exposure to high levels of noise. It’s really common that the support equipment in the industry, especially in blasting, is extremely loud, so there is a risk of experiencing hearing loss if overexposed. If you look at audiograms for abrasive blasters, you can see it in those who have been in the industry for a while: They suffer from occupational hearing loss. It’s pretty widespread.

The third point, which is probably not discussed very often in our industry, is vibration. For example, the force of the abrasive moving through the abrasive blaster’s hose will transfer that vibration to the blaster’s hands and arms. Then there’s a risk of developing a disease called Raynaud’s disease; it’s caused by damage to the nerves and capillaries. There’s multiple ways we can control this.

My fourth point would be heat—risk of death from heat. It’s very hot working in containment and in some really rough areas, so heat stress is a condition that could lead to heat exhaustion.

The fifth point—one that doesn’t get much air time—is musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDS, from work tasks associated with abrasive blasting, and that’s the risk of muscle strain from working in an unusual or uncomfortable work position; back strain from lifting or pushing; and strain from abrasive blasting hose width. It’s usually an overuse syndrome from controlling the blast hose, usually a specific part of the body that becomes damaged from overusing it.

Again, this is from an industrial hygiene standpoint trying to reduce exposure. You could get a safety professional look [at this completely differently.]

What are some safety precautions that are often forgotten and what can be done to remedy these?

[For example,] not installing a carbon monoxide monitor or if it was installed, it hasn’t been calibrated. If they’re using high-temperature alarms, it’s not working properly or hasn’t been installed properly. [Another concern] is making sure that the air filter has been installed or changed out according to manufacturer specifications. If you’re going to be breathing this air, it’s really important that you’re achieving great deep breathing for your health. […] To remedy this is simply raising awareness among abrasive blasters, painting contractors and their employees.

Last year there was a case where nut shells being used in abrasive blasting led to the death of someone who was allergic. In cases like this, do you think the abrasive should be labeled as a potential allergen?

It’s unfortunate that someone tragically lost their life, especially when we have the technology and knowledge to prevent this kind of exposure. Yes, labeling the abrasive would be prudent, however, I don’t think this would prevent a recurrence of this kind of event.

Specifically, as I recall, this person was on-site to perform air monitoring for lead. Therefore it’s unlikely he would have seen the bag of abrasive. Site-control methods should have been instituted. Many restricted jobsites require a visitor orientation where the safety director will go over the safety data sheets, and something like walnut shells or any other chemicals being used on the site should be discussed so the person is aware of those hazards. […] On a broader standpoint, to reduce the likelihood of this tragedy happening again, the way I see it, employees should communicate the risks associated with exposure to this kind of abrasive through specific hazard communication training for all exposed people, not just contractors but anyone who enters the site. […]

Also perform a job-specific risk assessment. The results of the risk assessment should be shared with everyone on the site. […] Dedicate enough resources for maintaining an OSHA-complaint hazard communication program.

To me, the most important thing is to ensure that the workplace fosters a safety culture. If the safety isn’t approved top-down, then these measures just don’t get put into place.

Is there anything you think readers should be aware of with safety in abrasive blasting?

I would just say that there are many other hazards we haven’t discussed when it comes to safety in abrasive blasting, so they really need to familiarize themselves with the safe operating practices for all the equipment that’s specific to their operation, not just safety data sheets, but the tools they’re using because there are a lot of dangers out there associated with abrasive blasting.

Knowledge is power. Take advantage of these booklets that are available on-site. Be proactive in your safety. Don’t just rely on your employer.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Tagged categories: Abrasive blasting; AF; AS; Asia Pacific; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); EU; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Latin America; NA; North America; OC; SA; Surface preparation

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