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Worker safety and industrial wipers

An inside look

In manufacturing environments, wipers are ubiquitous. They are used in nearly every aspect of a facility’s production, equipment, maintenance and housekeeping operations, as well as in laboratory settings and for wiping the hands and face.

Wipers generally fall into two categories: textiles (including rags and rental shop towels) and disposables (including paper-based and non-woven).

Textiles/Rags

Rags are typically clothing remnants and can vary widely in quality, size and composition. They are not engineered for wiping purposes and some, such as 100% synthetic fibre rags or synthetic-rich blends, may have poor absorbency.

Textiles/Rental Shop Towels

These cloth towels are made from woven textiles that are laundered by an offsite facility. While relatively strong, they are not engineered for particular tasks. In addition, there can be hidden costs associated with rental shop towels, such as “replacement charges” under the assumption that towels will be lost or charges to help cover waste management costs.

Disposables

Disposable wipers differ from rags and reusable shop towels in a number of ways. Disposables are manufactured to feel like cloth and are available in consistent sizes & shapes and a variety of strengths & thicknesses. They can be selected according to criteria such as absorbency, solvent-resistance, purity, low level of particulates (such as lint), or a combination of these and other factors. They can also be engineered for specific tasks, such as preventing cross contamination and inhibiting the growth of odour-causing bacteria via built-in antimicrobial protection.

Don’t risk exposure to lead or other heavy metals

One important factor to consider when selecting a wiping system is its impact on worker health and safety. Something as seemingly benign as a rental shop towel can present a very real safety and health hazard for manufacturing workers. For example, even after laundering, rental shop towels may pose certain risks. They may retain traces of grease and oil or shards of metal that can be seen and felt on the skin. Or they could expose users to dangerous levels of lead or other heavy metals.

When researchers from the UK based Gradient Corporation, an environmental lab, tested “freshly laundered” shop towels from 23 different industrial sites they discovered that the rental shop towels contained elevated levels of toxic heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium and antimony. These metals do not necessarily stay on the towels. They can migrate to workers’ hands and ultimately to their mouths, where they can be ingested.

The hands that touch these towels may also be used to hold a sandwich at lunch. The Gradient study found that an unacceptable amount of toxic heavy metals can be ingested by workers who use just 2.5 towels per day. In fact, the average amount of lead found in the tested laundered shop towels exceeded California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) Proposition 65 exposure limits, based on potential health risks such as cancer or reproductive effect.

In addition to the CalEPA standard, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) cites overexposure to lead as a leading cause of workplace illness. Depending on the length of exposure, this can result in symptoms ranging from fatigue and headaches to more serious health problems such as damage to the urinary, nervous and reproductive systems. Lead and other heavy metals can also be carried home from the workplace via workers’ skin or clothing, potentially exposing other family members, including young children.

The threat posed by lead to children has long been recognized by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), an independent regulatory agency that was established more than 30 years ago. The CPSC states that the “adverse health effects of lead poisoning in children are well-documented and may have long-lasting or permanent consequences” including neurological damage, delayed mental and physical development, attention and learning deficiencies, and hearing problems. The CPSC adds that “because lead accumulates in the body, even exposures to small amounts can contribute to the overall level of lead in the blood and to the subsequent risk of adverse health effects. Therefore, any unnecessary exposure of children to lead should be avoided.”

Abhay Kulkarni,
Marketing Manager- Pune,
cc, India

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