When you think of personal protective equipment, or PPE, what comes to mind? For me, my mind immediately pictures safety glasses, steel-toed shoes and earplugs, probably because those are the mandatory items required at the grinding wheel plant where I work. Of course, in certain settings and for certain tasks, different protective equipment is needed. Take driving as an example.
Driving is a hazardous activity, and the statistics reveal it: Automobile accidents are the leading cause of death for people under the age of 52, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Clearly, the seatbelt is the most important protection (PPE!) for drivers, yet for years even my mother never wore a seatbelt while driving.
The daughter of a cattle farmer, she was raised to be tough and determined, and when it came to personal choices like wearing a seatbelt, no one – not even her beloved children – could change her mind. Some people in the workplace often have a similar attitude with regard to PPE, and sadly, it often takes a near-miss or a personal injury to change their mind.
Nowadays, my mother always wears her seatbelt, much to the relief of her children, and not simply because the law has changed. Before I explain what happened, let us consider some familiar work tasks that require special protective equipment.
Welding requires numerous protectors, including a welding helmet, flame-resistant clothing and insulated gloves to protect the welder. A screen is utilized to protect bystanders. In my experience, these requirements are well-known and generally well followed.
Grinding also has special PPE requirements, but operators tend to adhere to them less strictly than with welding. There may be several reasons why.
One, before someone is allowed to weld, they usually receive special training that will certainly cover the topic of personal safety. That is not always the case for grinding, especially in basic applications like portable grinding.
(Note: While personal protective equipment is necessary for safe grinding, it is not a replacement for knowing how to grind properly and safely. If you have not been trained in the proper way to use your grinding wheels, including which unsafe practices to avoid, grind no further until you have educated yourself.)
Two, the hazards of welding are arguably more obvious than those of grinding. People see the bright light of the arc, the dancing sparks and the tanks of compressed gas and they intuitively see the potential for injury, while with grinding, many people take safety for granted. Some even incorrectly assume that grinding and cutting wheels cannot break.
The reality is that improperly used abrasive wheels can break, and the results can be devastating to operators and bystanders.
Wheel guards – unexpected PPE
The first and most important article of PPE in grinding is the wheel guard on the grinder. You may not think of it as PPE, but it is your first and strongest layer of protection. The wheel guard serves several very important purposes with respect to safety.
1. The guard protects you from accidental contact with the wheel.
Believe it or not, this is a legitimate hazard. It can happen when you are distracted, when you accidentally press the trigger or when the grinder kicks back. The guard will protect you from the spinning abrasive wheel.
2. In the event of a wheel breakage, the guard contains the high-speed wheel fragments.
There is serious danger when a grinding wheel breaks because it may be rotating as fast as 225 miles per hour. The wheel guard is specially designed to withstand the force of a breakage and contain the wheel fragments; no other article of PPE can do this.
An experienced but overly confident sheet metal fabricator never used a guard on his angle grinder – he said it got in the way. If a wheel ever broke, he would just quickly jump aside. With reflexes that good, this gentleman missed a lucrative career as a designated hitter. The truth, however, is that no one is quick enough to dodge pieces of a broken wheel traveling at 225 mph. Let the wheel guard do its job.
3. The guard prevents the operator from mounting a wheel too large for the machine.
This is the most common cause of over-speeding wheels, and it often results in the wheel breaking due to excessive speed. Think how the danger of this situation is multiplied when the over-speed wheel breaks: There is nothing protecting the operator from the fragments of the broken wheel, except maybe leather, fabric or thin plastic!
Not all guards are created equal. Depressed center wheels (wheel type 27) do not take the same guard as straight wheels (wheel type 01). Cup wheels (wheel types 06 and 11) take a different kind of guard, also. To determine if you are using the correct guard, refer to ANSI B7.1 or the user manual of your grinding machine.
4. The guard controls the stream of sparks and debris.
Guards also provide protection from flying sparks and grinding debris and are often part of a dust collection system.
A final statement about wheel guards that may seem obvious, but that is sometimes overlooked: Your wheel guard must be positioned correctly in order to protect you. Always position the guard between your body and the wheel.
Bodily PPE for grinding
Beyond wheel guards, safe practices also include the use of several PPE articles worn on the body.
Protect your face and eyes:
Few injuries are more devastating than eye injuries. Safety glasses and face shields are critical to protect against airborne sparks and metal chips generated in grinding, and they must be used together for full protection. Never use a face shield alone when grinding. And remember: sunglasses are not safety glasses, and welding helmets are not face shields.
I personally learned the importance of eye and face protection early in my career. As an engineer in training, I spent a lot of time on the shop floor, assisting the operators and learning the various jobs in the plant. One hot summer day, I found myself working next to the ovens, trimming off the sharp “flashing” from the outside surfaces of parts.
Working next to the hot furnaces, the sweat was running and soon my safety glasses began to slide down my face. After every couple of parts I nudged them back up, wiped my brow and continued to trim parts. Suddenly, at a moment when my glasses had slid down to the end of my nose, a piece of material flew into my eye! I ran to the sink to flush it out and was very relieved that no serious damage was done. But I knew I was lucky. Had I worn a face shield or safety glasses with a strap, the near-miss would have been avoided.
Protect your skin and hands:
Sparks are a sign that the grinding wheel is doing its job, but nevertheless, they present a safety hazard. Cover your skin with flame-resistant clothing and gloves to protect against burns and cuts from the spark stream and the surfaces of the workpiece.
Gloves also absorb some of the vibration associated with portable grinders, which can be rigorous in larger handheld machines and rugged applications, like portable snagging.
Protect your ears:
Listen up! Hearing loss can be irreversible and is very expensive to treat medically. Portable grinding is a noisy process that often takes place in noisy shop environments. Over time, noise exposure can deteriorate your hearing, so wear approved earplugs or muffs to protect your hearing now and for the long run.
Protect your lungs:
Dust inhalation can cause serious health problems if the proper PPE is not worn. At minimum, a dust mask should be worn when doing portable grinding. Some jobs will require greater protection in the form of respirators. Consult the material safety data sheets (MSDS or SDS) pertaining to both the workpiece material and the abrasive wheel in order to select the appropriate respiratory PPE.
Take the easy road
All too often, our attitudes and behaviors about safety do not change until we brush close to danger – or even suffer an injury. That was the case with my mother and her seatbelt. One evening while she was riding on the back of a motorcycle, a deer stepped into the road causing the driver to swerve. She was thrown from the bike at 30 miles per hour. Extraordinarily, she came away from the accident with no serious injuries, but she instantly had a new perspective on motor vehicle safety.
Use only approved PPE
Safety products sold in the PPE categories mentioned in this article must be specifically designed and tested according to various national and international safety standards. Consult a safety professional if you are not certain if your PPE products comply.
In the workplace, too many people have learned lessons the hard way when it comes to wearing PPE. Don’t follow in their footsteps. Take the easy road – the safe road – and wear all the required PPE when using abrasives. That includes the wheel guard, safety glasses, face shield, gloves, flame-resistant clothing, and ear and lung protection. In doing so, you are not only protecting yourself and those working around you, but also your family and those who rely on you every day.