Protecting Steel Mill Workers: Understanding PPE Requirements
Steel mill workers confront numerous hazards in their faces daily work, ranging from physical dangers like falling objects to the risk of heat-related injuries, respiratory issues, and more. Understanding these dangers is crucial for tailoring the right personal protective equipment (PPE) for Steel Mill workers. In the following article, we will provide an in-depth exploration of each hazard, discussing appropriate PPE solutions for each scenario.
DANGER #1: PHYSICAL HAZARDS (CUT, FRACTURE, IMPACT)
Machines within the steel mill industry can be old and not well-maintained, leading to accidents such as lacerations, bruises or even amputations in some serious cases. OSHA reports that there were hundreds of caught-in accidents reported in the steel manufacturing industry, resulting in an average of 21 fatalities per year.
1 – Hard Hats
Wearing the correct PPE can avoid serious injuries, particularly wearing head protection. There are many dangers in a steel mill that can cause head injuries, such as flying debris, falling objects, and contact with hot surfaces.
The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) classifies hard hats into two categories – type 1 and type 2. Type 1 hats provide top-only protection, while type 2 hats offer both top and lateral protection. The top-only type 1 hat is designed to protect against impact from vertical drops, while the type 2 hat is created to protect against impacts from both vertical drops and blows from lateral directions.
OSHA recommends that workers in steel mills always wear type-2 hard hats. Hard hats should be ANSI-rated and fit properly. Workers should also wear face shields when working with hot materials or around flying debris.
2 – Anti-cut PPE
Anti-cut PPE are garments often made from Aramide fibers, offering cut resistance, flexibility, and a lightweight design. Ideal for tasks requiring dexterity like hot metal or sharp edges, it's important to remember these materials only protect against cuts and are not suitable for puncture wounds or abrasions.
3 – Foot Protection
Foot injuries from dropped objects, hot surfaces, and slips and trips can be prevented with foot protection. OSHA recommends that workers wear closed-toe shoes with steel toes and safety boots when handling hot materials or in areas with flying debris.
The footwear needed for workers in a steel mill varies depending on the job. For example, assembly line workers need protective shoes that are impact resistant, while molten metal employees require heat-resistant boots.
DANGER #2: HEAT RELATED INJURIES
The temperature in a steel mill can reach upwards of 650°C (1200 °F), with molten metal splashes reaching high temperatures (750C to 1500C depending on the metal) and sticking to surfaces. With two types of heat, radiant and convective heat, there are high levels of infrared, which can cause 1st and 2nd degree burn injuries if not properly protected.
Radiant Heat Reflective Material
Steelworkers handling hot metal in processes like welding or smelting should use radiant heat reflective materials like aluminized fabrics. These fabrics reflect up to 95% of radiant heat, ideal for preventing burns during such operations. Protective gloves with high contact heat resistance are crucial for hand safety, especially for those working with hot metal and blast furnaces.
Different Types of Protective Gloves
1. Welders Gloves Made in Leather for Sparks
Welders should choose leather gloves designed for spark and heat protection, ensuring dexterity and flexibility. These gloves feature an outer layer of split cowhide or goatskin leather for durability and flame-resistance. The inner lining, often made of wool or cotton fabric, ensures comfort and keeps hands dry.
2. Heavily Insulated Stitched Gloves for Steel Workers in Contact with Hot Objects
Steelworkers handling hot objects like metal sheets or pipes require gloves with extra insulation to prevent burns. Optimal protection is offered from heavily insulated material, stitched together tightly with padding on both sides, ensuring no skin touches hot surfaces. Look for gloves with reinforced seams, reinforced fingertips, adjustable straps, and secured cuffs.
3. Heat Shield Gloves for Forging Applications
Forging applications require a different type of glove than those used in welding, as they are designed with multiple layers of insulation and cut-resistant linings made from Aramide fibers, to protect against abrasions, punctures, and tears when working with sharp metals such as iron or stainless steel.
Different Types of Heat Resistant Boots
Workers must wear heat-resistant boots that can withstand temperatures up to 500°C (932°F) and not melt or soften quickly. Leather can provide some degree of protection, but it tends to soften quickly when exposed to very hot liquids.
Instead opt for materials like para-aramid fabric or fiberglass-coated leather, that provide better insulation against heat and won't deform quickly. In addition, choose padded insoles and shock absorbing midsoles that offer additional comfort while standing on hard surfaces all day long.
DANGER #3: RESPIRATORY INJURIES
Steel mills often produce a lot of dust and fumes which can be hazardous to your health if inhaled. This can lead to respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis or other long-term health issues.
Disposable respirators are designed to filter out dust and other airborne particulates from the air. They come in various sizes and shapes, with some using replaceable filters or cartridges while others are disposable after one use. Disposable respirators are relatively inexpensive and easy to use, making them an ideal choice for short-term tasks such as welding or sanding.
However, it is important to note that disposable respirators may not provide adequate protection against more hazardous substances such as smoke or chemical fumes.
Powered Air-Purifying Respirator (PAPRs)
Powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) are a type of respiratory device that uses a battery-powered fan to draw contaminated air into a filtering system before delivering clean air directly into the user’s lungs via a mask or hood – similar to an SCBA but without the bulky tank on your back.
PAPRs provide superior protection against dangerous particulates by filtering out 99% of contaminants compared to 95% for disposable respirators, making them particularly useful for long-term tasks such as working with hazardous chemicals or welding over extended periods of time.
Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBAs)
A self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is the most advanced type of respiratory protection available for steel mill workers. Unlike disposable respirators and PAPRs which rely on external power sources, SCBAs are completely self-contained units that pack their own oxygen supply into a tank carried on your back - allowing you to work in hazardous environments for extended periods of time without having to worry about running out of air supply.
SCBAs also offer superior protection against hazardous gases, smoke, and other particulates by providing filtered air directly from the unit itself rather than relying on ambient air quality like other types of respiratory gear do.
DANGER #4: ARC FLASH HAZARDS
Electrocutions are a leading cause of death, with OSHA reporting 19 deaths per year due to exposed electrical parts and energized conductors. An arc flash hazard occurs when an electric current passes through an air gap between conductors, causing a release of energy in the form of heat, light, sound, and pressure waves.
Employees can be protected against arc flash hazards by wearing the proper PPE, like flame-resistant (FR) clothing, face shields, gloves with appropriate insulation ratings, hard hats, safety shoes or boots with reinforced toes and insulating soles, and hearing protection.
- Choose FR clothing rated for specific tasks; while cotton may suffice for low-energy tasks, it's inadequate for higher-energy settings where better burn protection is essential.
- Ensure PPE properly fits; if too loose or tight it won't provide adequate protection against hazardous conditions. Also, PPE should be inspected before each use to ensure that it is in good condition and free from damage or defects.
- Certain helmet grades are essential for protection against electric arcs. Hard hats are classified based on the specific hazards they safeguard users against.
FR clothing should be rated for the type of work being done; some types are better suited for certain tasks than others. For example, cotton garments may be suitable for low-energy tasks but should not be used in higher-energy settings as they offer inadequate protection against burns.
PPE must also fit properly; if it's too loose or tight it won't provide adequate protection against hazardous conditions. Additionally, PPE should be inspected before each use to ensure that it is in good condition and free from damage or defects that could put workers at risk during an arc flash incident.
Specific grades of helmets are required for electric arcs protection. Hard hats are also classified according to the type of hazard they protect users from:
- 1. Class G Hard Hats
Class G hard hats resist up to 2,200 volts, provide impact against falling objects, and feature a brim around the sides and back of the head to protect against ultraviolet rays and rain.
- 2. Class E Hard Hats
Class E helmets offer protection up to 20,000 volts, making it useful in conjunction with eye goggles, face shields, and more. These helmets are typically made of non-conductive materials like plastic or fiberglass with some metal components.
- 3. Class C Hard Hats
Class C helmets are designed for impact protection rather than electrical hazard protection. While they do not meet ANSI standards for electric shock resistance, they offer protection from falling objects. Typically, made of lightweight materials like plastic or composite fibers, allowing for better airflow and adequate impact resistance.
DANGER #5: EXPLOSION
The presence of an explosive atmosphere (ATEX) is commonly found in the steel mill industry. ATEX regulations cover explosive atmospheres that occur due to flammable gases, vapors, mists, or dust, which accumulate in poorly ventilated areas. To stay protected, employers must adhere to ATEX regulations by providing workers with appropriate PPE, such as flame-resistant clothing, earplugs, and eyewear. Additionally, employees should have adequate training in operation safety and be able to recognize potential fire hazards.
Another major risk associated with steel mill work is the presence of static electricity. Static electricity builds up when two objects rub together—in this case when workers walk across a steel floor or handle metallic tools or materials. The buildup of static electricity can ignite flammable liquids or gases if not properly controlled. To reduce the risk of static electricity igniting an explosive atmosphere, employers should provide workers with anti-static protective clothing and footwear at all times while working in a steel mill environment.
DANGER #6: CHEMICAL HAZARDS
Steelworkers face health risks from exposure to harmful chemicals during production, leading to long-term issues like cancer, skin diseases, and respiratory illnesses.
OSHA identifies hazardous chemicals in steel mills, including beryllium, cadmium, chromium, lead, manganese, nickel, and sulfuric acid. Inhaling or ingesting chemicals like hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, and lead can cause serious health problems. Workers must prioritize PPE such as gloves, respirators, and protective clothing when handling these chemicals.
Chemical suits made from neoprene rubber or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) provide full-body protection, allowing flexibility for wearers to perform safely and effectively. Notably, these suits should be worn with additional protective equipment, such as face shields and goggles.
Here are the different types of full-face shields used in steel mills:1. Polycarbonate Full-Face Shields
As the leading full-face shields, they offer excellent protection against dust, sparks, and hazardous materials while ensuring clear visibility. Polycarbonate's lightweight design provides all-day comfort without causing fatigue, and the anti-fog coating keeps the shield clear during use.2. Fiberglass Full-Face Shields
Offering an even higher level of protection than polycarbonate face shields, these shields are stronger and more resilient, making them ideal for workers in harsh environments. While Fiberglass has a longer lifespan than polycarbonate, it can be more expensive and does not offer as much comfort or visibility.3. Thermoplastic Full-Face Shields
Made from a composite material that offers greater flexibility than either polycarbonate or fiberglass face shields, thermoplastic face shields are highly resistant to force or pressure impacts. However, thermoplastic masks may not be as durable due to their thinner construction.