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Handling hazardous materials: are you up to date?

All the Material Safety Data Sheets in the world and all the training programs offered by employers are futile if people elects to avoid them for the sake of ignorance or expediency.

As recently as within the past ten years, machine operators commonly removed adhesives, coatings, and inks from their hands and arms by washing with toluene, methyl ethyl ketone, or other solvent. Mixing-room employees could be seen eating sandwiches while they were readying preparations for a press or laminator. Male employees wearing dangling neckties frequently bent next to the nip rollers of an extruder that was running at 500 fpm. Other instances that come to mind include people taking puffs from a cigarette partially hidden in a curled hand while standing near operations using flammable solvents. An additional image is a crouched person stirring a pail of heated adhesive as the vapors waft in the vicinity.

These are all examples of extremely dangerous practices that put individual workers at severe risk of injury or death. The workers cited in these illustrations were often ignorant of the possible consequences of their actions. If they were aware of the risks, they typically would rationalize their actions for reasons of expediency: An action might not be safe, but it was quick and easy, and it probably would cause no harm.

Ignorance and expediency can be deadly! The Occupational Safety and Health Act enacted by Congress more than 20 years ago provides a foundation on which companies can build a program of protection. The act led to identification of hazardous chemicals in the workplace, prescribed Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs), and established employee training programs.

However, safety concerns remain, as does the question: Has all this formality and paperwork jaded the true intent of the act? Do today's workers think any more carefully than yesterday's workers did about their actions when handling an adhesive, coating, or ink.

All the MSDSs in the world and all the training programs offered by employers are futile if people elect to avoid them either out of ignorance or for the sake of expediency.

The use of solvent is not as prevalent today because of the wide availability of aqueous products. Water appears to offer a sense of security, but this impression can sometimes be false. Careful perusal of MSDSs for aqueous products may, in fact, reveal significant hazards to the user.

Warnings to use gloves, goggles, respirators, or other protective devices have a very specific reason-protecting the user. For the sake of health and safety, never ignore recommendations on the MSDSs for an aqueous product-or any product. Adhesives, coatings, or inks in any form-solvent, hot melt, etc.-may contain harmful ingredients that could enter one's system during use.

Experimental trials of new materials are instances in which workers often temporarily drop their defensive protection against material hazards. Common thinking is that the trial only involves one or two pails of material. How can such a small quantity of something be hazardous? Unfortunately, it might be more dangerous than what someone customarily handles in large quantities.

Everyone must avoid exposure to the potential hazards of any material. Nobody can do this for someone else. Each person bears the sole responsibility for his or her own well-being when handling any adhesive, coating, or ink. Taking the extra time to use gloves, goggles, respirators, or other necessary precautions will protect against temporary or long-term harm. Spending the few minutes to learn about the product and its precautions can often mean the difference between health and irreparable harm. Always avoid the tendency to take shortcuts for the sake of expediency.

Times have changed. Adhesives, coatings, and inks have changed. Although MSDSs are abundantly available, and safety training programs are in place, the question remains: Have you altered your behavior to reflect both the changes in times and in laminating and coating products? Do you always follow the recommended procedures on the MSDS? If you have not changed yet, now is the time to start.

David J. Bentley Jr. is a recognized industry expert in polymers, laminations, and coatings with more than 30 years of experience in R&D and technical service.

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