SAFETY SOLUTIONS: Working with Composite Materials Safely and Preventing Dermatitis
The composites industry in the United States
includes three manufacturing areas: polymers, metals,
and ceramics. This Safety and Health Topic section
deals with that segment of the industry known as
polymer matrix composites.
What are composite materials?
Composite materials consist of a binder or matrix material
(often a resin) and a reinforcement, such as fibers or
particles. There are three general types of composite
materials: fiber-reinforced, particulate reinforced, or laminar
composites. There are many different types of fibers
used in composite production, including glass, carbon,
other organic fibers, Aramid (Kevlar®), boron, continuous
silicon carbide, and aluminium oxide. Of these, glass and
carbon are the most widely used.
Some components of composite materials are sensitizers,
meaning that exposures to these materials can cause
workers to become allergic to them. Advanced Composite
Materials (ACM), are high performance materials such as
prepregs, resin transfer molding compounds, and reinforced
This information focuses on prepreg ACM use.
Why should I be concerned about composites?
People working in the production of composite materials
or manufacturing of products using fiber-reinforced
composites are at increased risk of developing dermatitis.
Dermatitis is an inflammation of the skin, which may start
with symptoms of redness, itching, swelling, and a burning
or hot sensation. Without treatment, dermatitis can
progress to broken or blistering skin, scaling, infection,
eczema, or psoriasis.
Dermatitis is preventable!
Almost everyone working in facilities manufacturing
composites or products made of composite materials has
the potential for exposure to skin irritants, allergens, or
sensitizers. Maintenance personnel, laboratory workers,
technicians, shipping workers, and production workers can
be exposed to prepregs, solvents, lubricants, resins,
fibers, detergents, hardeners, strippers, and degreasers.
The materials used in composite manufacturing can also
cause other health effects, including occupational asthma
and eye irritation. Employees working with composites
may be particularly vulnerable to these skin problems
because of continuous workplace exposure to fibers
(which act as mechanical irritants), resin systems, solvents,
and other chemicals. A recent survey of occupational skin
disorders in the State of Washington, examined industry
specific workers’ compensation claim rates. Half of the
industries with the highest rates use composite-fiber resin
systems, including sporting and athletic goods manufacturing;
plastic products manufacturing; boat building and
repairing; and aircraft parts and equipment.
For the years 1993 through 1997 there were an average
of approximately 61,000 reported cases per year of
occupational skin disease in the United States. Skin disease
accounts for about 13% of all occupational diseases
over this time period. who develop dermatitis will have
long-term or chronic skin problems. Workers becoming
sensitized to the material may have to move to another
job or change occupations completely.
What can I do to prevent dermatitis while
working with ACM?
Several steps can be taken to protect skin and prevent
dermatitis from starting. When thinking about eliminating
or reducing worker exposures it is important to rank exposure
control methods in order of effectiveness.
At the Source ---- Most Effective Control
Along the Path At the Worker ---- Least
The most effective exposure control is to eliminate the
exposure, for example substituting a less hazardous substance
for a more hazardous substance. This approach will
not work in all situations. When elimination cannot be
used, the hazard may be intercepted along its exposure
pathway. Local exhaust ventilation is an example of a control
for airborne exposures to dusts or chemical mists or
vapors. In the case of dermal exposures in compositeusing
industries, sweeps and rollers can be used to prevent
direct contact with these materials.
Those controls implemented by the worker are the last
level of exposure control. This level of control should be
considered the "last resort" after other forms of exposure
control have been considered technologically infeasible. It
is appropriate to rely on personal protective equipment
(PPE) while more effective forms of exposure control are
being installed. Exposure controls implemented at the
worker include PPE and administrative controls (work
scheduling, worker training, and policies).
To effectively combat dermatitis, an exposure control
plan should be developed.
1. "Zero Contact"
The best approach to prevent dermatitis while working
with a composite material is not to have any direct skin
contact with it. This can be done many ways:
- Engineering Controls such as computer driven pattern
cutters (robotics) or local exhaust ventilation.
- Tools such as sweeps or rollers.
- Personal Protective Equipment, such as gloves and
shop coats. Many workers resist wearing gloves
because they claim the gloves interfere with their ability
to “feel” the work. Ill-fitting gloves can interfere with
dexterity and sensitivity.
However, well fitting gloves, selected for the specific
exposure hazard, and worn consistently and correctly can
be an effective component of an overall exposure control
Dermatitis can occur in other parts of the body besides the
hands, including the arms, face, trunk and legs. Protective
clothing such as lab coats, arm protectors, goggles, hats, and
aprons can reduce body exposure. Loose, long-sleeved shirts
and pants are recommended to prevent fibers that do get
caught in clothing from rubbing directly on the skin.
Barrier skin creams might be used to supplement but
not replace PPE. Their effectiveness in protecting against
exposures should be evaluated before they are used.
However, these creams may contaminate work processes.
All barrier creams will wear off during the day, so it is
important to be cautious in the use of barrier creams.
2. Education and Training
It is important that information about dermatitis and its
prevention is given to workers who are exposed to dermatologically
active materials. This information should be
part of the workplace safety and health-training portion of
the company's overall Accident Prevention Program.
Training should include the following:
- general dermatitis information
- recognition of skin disease symptoms
- how and where to report cases of skin disease
- engineering controls used and how to ensure that they
are operating properly
- use of appropriate PPE proper glove choice and use
- what to do if exposed to a toxic chemical
- housekeeping standards
3. General Work Environment
General workplace conditions can affect the development
of dermatitis. Air temperature should fall within the
range of 63°F to 72°F, with humidity at approximately
50%. Housekeeping is also vital to promoting healthy
skin. Maintaining a clean workplace by cleaning up spills
immediately, vacuuming, etc. can help prevent dermatitis
by removing irritants from areas where workers are likely
to contact them.
4. Skin Care Program
When dealing with work-related diseases like dermatitis,
preventing the problem before it starts is crucial.
Educating workers regarding hand-washing routines,
proper use of household cleansers at home, and general
hygiene precautions are essential elements of a skin care
program. Workers should be instructed to wash their
hands before eating, smoking, using the lavatory, and at
the end of their shift, before leaving work. Providing gentle
cleansers, and moisturizing creams in addition to PPE
may be beneficial. Instituting a comprehensive skin care
program for workers can enhance these prevention tactics.
It is important that both new and current workers
understand the dermatologic hazards they face and how
best to protect themselves from those hazards. Training at
the time of hire, as well as annual refresher courses would
be a reasonable starting point.
By incorporating symptoms of dermatitis into health
and safety training, workers and managers will be better
able to recognize potential skin problems. It is also beneficial
to ensure that the attending physician or occupational
health specialist is aware of the types of exposures
specific to the composite industry and the potential for
dermatitis. If you notice any signs of dermatitis, medical
treatment should be sought immediately. It is important
to treat it medically as soon as possible to prevent progression
to a more serious condition. It may be helpful to
the physician to have a prepared list of specific materials
handled by the affected worker.
I would like to give credit to Washington State Industrial
Commission (WISHA) for the information in this article.
For more information on this subject; please write to me
at the magazine. I am eager to answer your many potential
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