FAQs: How Can Dust from Manufacturing Packaging Materials Harm Workers

© Vipada – stock.adobe.com

Editor’s Note: The following article first ran in IHW’s sister publication, Packaging Technology Today, in 2023. For the original article, go to https://tinyurl.com/bdbkb6f8 .

What’s so dangerous about dust?

Put simply, dust is the largest contributor to poor indoor air quality (IAQ), and poor IAQ leads to health problems and combustible dust incidents. Airborne metal, plastic and paper dust particles can contain toxic ingredients that can harm workers if ingested or inhaled. The dusts can also cause dermatitis, allergic reactions or embed themselves in the lungs—leading to respiratory issues like asthma and lung cancer.

How is dust created when manufacturing paper packaging materials?

Airborne dust is generated during trimming, die-cut pressing, shredding, baling and vacuum-feed conveying. If left uncontrolled, these dusts can expose workers to health and safety hazards and cause combustible dust incidents.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) classifies dust explosibility using their Kst values, which range from zero to greater than 300. Any dust with a Kst above zero is classified as explosive, requiring explosion protection for your dust collector. Most paper dust is classified as ST1, with a Kst around 100.

Plastic dust contains various chemicals, posing a health hazard to workers. Inhaling dust and fumes from plastics can lead to mild-to-severe headaches, nausea, dizziness and more. Plastic dust is also combustible and explosive. © Mumemories – stock.adobe.com

How is dust created when manufacturing plastic packaging materials?

Extrusion, cutting, trimming, sanding, machining, drilling, pelletizing, granulating, shaping, forming and conveying processes all generate airborne dust. This plastic dust contains various chemicals, posing a health hazard to workers. Inhaling dust and fumes from plastics can lead to mild to severe headaches, nausea, dizziness, and irritation to the eyes, nose and lungs. Plastic dust is also combustible and explosive.

How is dust created when manufacturing metal packaging materials?

Welding, thermal cutting, sanding and polishing generate metal dust and fumes that can be very toxic. Welding fumes can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, as well as dizziness, nausea, lung damage and various types of cancer with prolonged exposure.

OSHA has established Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) based on 8-hour, time-weighted averages (TWAs) for hundreds of dusts, including those contained in welding fumes. Metal dust is also combustible and explosive, making even a small amount of it dangerous if it comes into contact with an ignition source.

How do manufacturers capture hazardous dust to prevent poor air quality and combustible dust incidents?

Industrial dust collectors are essential in plants, factories and other processing facilities, because they capture and contain harmful particles from the air. These collectors are typically large pieces of equipment that can be installed either inside or outside the facility.

To capture dust, the collectors constantly cycle the dust-laden air through a series of filter cartridges. Much of the airborne dust is too tiny to see with the naked eye, but it accumulates on the cartridges, allowing the clean air to be released back into the work environment or vented outside the facility.

Dust collection systems and the filter cartridges they use vary greatly in quality from one brand to another. Shopping by “sticker price” often costs more in the long run for consumables, energy and compliance efforts.

Which agencies regulate dangerous dusts?

OSHA is responsible for ensuring employee safety by protecting them from harmful dust exposure. This includes requiring companies to control dust emissions in indoor workplaces and comply with legal limits set for each ingredient and material. If there are no legal limits applicable, the company must develop, implement and measure its own environmental safety plan and put it in writing.

The NFPA recommends standards and guidelines for managing combustible dusts, playing a significant role in this area. Manufacturers who fail to follow these guidelines risk facing fines by OSHA, legal scrutiny and a damaged reputation.

Airborne dust is generated during trimming, die-cut pressing, shredding, baling and vacuum-feed conveying of paper materials. © Мар’ян Філь – stock.adobe.com

How does an explosion occur in a dust collector?

Any closed container filled with dry particles can become susceptible to explosions, and dust collectors are enclosed vessels. These explosions usually start when a high concentration of combustible dust is present inside the collector in the form of a suspended cloud.

When the fan draws in large volumes of air, an outside spark or ember can be pulled into the collector and collide with the compressed dust cloud, setting off an explosion. The source of the spark can originate from a production process; a cigarette butt discarded into a dust capture hood; or a discharge of static electricity from nearby equipment that’s improperly grounded.

How do you protect a dust collector from a combustible dust explosion?

It’s crucial to use the proper size dust collectors for each facility they will handle. It’s also essential to acknowledge that combustible dust explosions cannot always be avoided in dust collectors. However, it is possible to put in place explosion protection systems to ensure that the explosion doesn’t cause harm. Various options are available for these systems.

Explosion venting is the most cost-effective and desirable solution. This vent prevents the flame front and pressure from traveling to process areas when an explosion occurs in a dust collector.

However, some facilities may need an explosion isolation valve or integrated safety monitoring filter. This is especially true when the facility returns the clean air back into the workspace.

The NFPA has provided guidelines for designing, locating, installing and maintaining explosion protection devices to minimize harm to personnel, and prevent structural and mechanical damage. A reputable dust collection equipment vendor can guide you through this process.

Do all packaging facilities need to have their dust tested?

No. According to NFPA standards, only facilities that generate, handle or store potentially explosive dusts are required to conduct a dust hazard analysis (DHA). Manufacturers must prove that their dust is not combustible, which means it’s crucial for them to have their process dust tested by a valid third-party testing lab and maintain records that demonstrate it’s not combustible.

However, if the tests show that the facility has combustible dust, it’s required by NFPA 652 to conduct a DHA of their dust collection systems. The facility must keep this report on file and provide it upon request by the local fire marshal or other authority having jurisdiction. Additionally, explosion venting equipment should be inspected at least annually based on documented operating experience. Again, a reputable dust collection equipment vendor can guide you through this process.

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