Oil mist inhalation is hazardous to employees’ health. This isn’t new news. OSHA’s limits for what’s permissible were set some time ago, and the same is true for NIOSH, although its permissible levels have historically been stricter than OSHA’s.
In response, business owners have invested in solutions to meet those guidelines, often choosing to adhere to OSHA’s standards, the less strict of the two. There’s a case to be made, however, for a business owner to go beyond even NIOSH’s limits – and not just for the increased safety of employees, but also for the bottom line.
When a business chooses to invest more in its oil mist extraction efforts, savings come in a variety of forms. Think about a simple project like putting a fresh coat of paint on the walls. When they’re slippery with oil mist residue, the cost and time involved just to prep the walls for paint go up. Or think about the extra maintenance costs and downtime involved with equipment that is caked in filth from the inside out. The damage oil mist inflicts on a business goes far beyond the harm it’s already putting on employees.
The way to justify increased investments in oil mist extraction is to look at it as an extra insurance policy. When a business owner chooses to reduce the amount of oil mist that’s emitted into their facility, added protections are placed on employees, equipment, infrastructure, throughput and even reputation.
For the past 28 years, Ed Sithes, vice president of oil mist solutions at Nederman, has been touring metalworking facilities around the world, offering advice for how to best reduce the amount of oil mist released into the air. He’s witnessed the damage it can wreak on a plant first-hand and has personally experienced its health effects, having contracted industrial bronchitis three times.
“It’s a nasty blanket that gets on and inside of everything,” he says. “Aerosol doesn’t have any prejudices. It goes wherever it can.”
And that’s why Sithes recommends that business owners take extra steps to combat it. Although most business owners that he talks to have long understood the health hazards, many have not fully recognized the other side effects that oil mist presents – even just from a cleanliness standpoint.
These days, staying competitive and maintaining a clean facility go hand in hand. Imagine bringing a potential customer into a facility where the floors, walls and ceilings are dirty. Imagine what that customer might think of their product being produced in that type of environment. Imagine if that customer is in a field, such as medical or aerospace, that requires tight tolerances that cannot be achieved as easily if the equipment is dirty and, therefore, compromised. Now imagine that customer walking right out the door to the competitor down the street.
The same goes for potential employees. Recruiting anyone to work in a dirty facility can be an impossible task – especially recruiting young people that aren’t tolerant of poor working conditions.
Losing work to the cleaner competitor down the road and then trying to complete work with an insufficient employee base can be crippling to a business. Adding insult to injury, the costs incurred on machinery subjected to oil mist can be substantial, as well. As Sithes mentions, oil mist gets on everything it can, and he’s seen the telltale signs of its effects on machinery all too much.
“When the walls are yellow, you’re slipping on the floors and all of the equipment’s electrical panels have filters on them that are all black, you know you’re in a place that’s problematic,” he explains. “I was in a place last week where the ambient oil mist counts were at 5 mg when they should be 0.7 mg. I was surprised that anyone was working there.”
Although the ambient levels within the facility were much more egregious than what he typically sees, the black filters that he mentioned aren’t all that uncommon. Fabricating machinery is expensive, so protecting it is paramount. Protecting it with nothing more than a small filter, however, might not cut it.
“Because a machining center is enclosed, some folks think it’s OK,” Sithes explains. “Inside of the machine cavity, you’re turning a part at a high rpm and creating positive pressure, forcing the byproducts of that operation to seep out of any crack they can find – out into the plant and into any nearby machines.”
When manufacturing oils seep into electrical boxes that are pulling high amperages, there are a variety of electrical hazards to be concerned about, particularly those that could jeopardize employee safety. As just one example, buildup of oil mist inside of a machine can interrupt or totally disengage the functioning of light guards and interlocks.
A facility’s utilities can also be affected in a similar fashion. HVAC systems won’t be able to run as efficiently as they should when they’re caked in oil mist. Undoubtedly, the cost of cleaning these systems on a regular basis can be high.
“If machines are dirty, they won’t work right,” Sithes says. “And if they won’t work right, you’re losing money.”
“Operators that are exposed to excessive amounts of oil mist go home and have to blow their nose for hours to get this stuff out of their systems,” Sithes says. “But exposure can lead to more severe health issues, such as brain tumors and nerve damage. There’s also risk of immune disorders from the bacteria and fungi that is being absorbed into the body. The dangers to employee health are far ranging and incredibly serious.”
The scenario with the enclosed machining center that is perceived as safe serves as further proof for going beyond the permissible levels prescribed by OSHA and NIOSH. Although the ambient levels may be below guidelines, plumes of oil mist escape into an operator’s breathing zone every time a cycle is completed and the door to a machining center opens.
When greater precautions are placed on equipment, employee health benefits as does overall company productivity. Employees will take less sick days, and increased throughput will be the result. To realize these benefits, Sithes recommends an oil mist collector that features filters with fiber bed technology.
“Fiber bed technology, which is also called saturation technology, maintains a 99.9 percent efficiency during the lifetime of the media,” he says. “Unlike other oil mist collectors, fiber bed technology allows a filter to become completely saturated while still allowing the air to flow through it. Interestingly, the filter weighs 40 lbs. versus the 3-lb. weight of typical filters. It’s night and day technology.”
For comparison, surface loading media, which is found in common industrial oil mist collectors as well as residential HVAC systems, collects particulates in the air, which eventually clog the media. As this happens, static pressure increases, which, in turn, reduces the air flow necessary for collection – hence the high frequency of filter changeouts. Filters with fiber bed technology, however, can last years before ever having to be replaced.
Regardless of the type of filter media used, a clean facility equates to healthier and happier employees, longer lasting machinery, higher throughput and a greater company reputation.