The Health Dangers of Conventional Abrasives

Protecting the long term health of workers has always been a concern for business, and has been further highlighted by the recent approval by th Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of a final rule concerning crystalline silica. This rule is designed to curb lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney disease in America's workers by limiting their exposure to the known hazards presented by respirable crystalline silica.

OSHA estimates that, once the rule is fully implemented, it will save over 600 lives, prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis, and provide net benefits of nearly $7.7 billion annually. The new silica rule follows on less strict exposure limits that were put in place as the dangers of respirable crystalline silica initially became apparent.

As OSHA recognized, responsible employers have long been protecting workers from exposure to respirable crystalline silica by using personal protective equipment or by controlling dust using widely-available equipment with water or a vacuum system.


What Should You Do as an Employer?

While the revised crystalline silica rule will protect workers from the known hazards presented by that material, a responsible employer should ask the following questions.

  • Are there other materials my company uses today that also present hazards to workers?
  • If these materials are not yet regulated by OSHA, will they be in the future?
  • Can my company take steps now to get ahead of future OSHA regulations?
  • Will these steps also limit my company’s liability to fight potentially crippling class action lawsuits as the negative effects of these materials become more obvious? (If you aren’t worried about these, then take a moment to think about the companies that were bankrupted by asbestos and silicosis lawsuits)?

Unfortunately for companies that use conventional abrasive saw blades or grinding wheels, the answer to question one above is a clear yes.


Health Risks


Silicon carbide fibers — used to make silicon carbide abrasive blades — under high magnification. These fibers lodge in the lungs and have the same carcinogenic or cancer-causing properties as asbestos. The following studies show increased risk of cancer and chronic bronchopulmonary diseases in workers exposed to them: American Journal of Epidemiology, Vol. 153, No. 10, pp. 978-986 and Occupational Medicine, Vol. 50, No. 2, pp. 103-106.

Silicon carbide fibers — used to make silicon carbide abrasive blades — under high magnification. These fibers lodge in the lungs and have the same carcinogenic or cancer-causing properties as asbestos. The following studies show increased risk of cancer and chronic bronchopulmonary diseases in workers exposed to them: American Journal of Epidemiology, Vol. 153, No. 10, pp. 978-986 and Occupational Medicine, Vol. 50, No. 2, pp. 103-106.

 

 

Conventional abrasives such as silicon carbide (sometimes called carborundum), aluminum oxide (also known as alumina), and titanium dioxide all have significant negative health effects. These negative effects are not yet as well-established as those for crystalline silica, but that’s partly because these materials haven’t been studied to the same extent.

Despite the lack of studies, initial research points to a number of problems with conventional abrasive materials.

For example, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists both silicon carbide and titanium dioxide as possibly carcinogenic to humans. In addition, OSHA’s chemical sampling information for silicon carbide notes that “Excess mortality from asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, pneumoconiosis, and lung cancer among silicon carbide workers has been reported.”

Aluminum oxide is not safe either. A study published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2009 suggests that exposure to inhalable alumina dust may be associated with an increased risk of strokes. A newer study published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2016 suggests that healthy workers exposed to aluminum oxide particles suffer from airway inflammation, even at levels below existing threshold limit values (TLVs). Airway inflammation can lead to long-term health problems like those experienced by sufferers of emphysema, chronic bronchitis, silicosis, and pulmonary fibrosis.

If that wasn’t enough, conventional abrasive blades also create sparks that can injure workers, damage equipment, and cause fires or explosions.


What You Can Do

It is not yet clear whether OSHA will take action to ban these dangerous materials from the workplace. But, as scientific evidence of the dangers posed by conventional abrasive materials continues to mount, the agency will almost certainly undertake rulemaking concerning these occupational hazards, similar to its actions on crystalline silica.

Luckily for responsible businesspeople, significantly safer alternatives already exist that enable your company to get ahead of future OHSA regulations and provide protection against future lawsuits.

These alternatives are superabrasive materials, namely diamond and cubic boron nitride. These materials have long been used in a wide range of applications, including aerospace, electronics manufacturing, stone and concrete cutting, and medicine. In fact, if you’ve ever had a tooth drilled by your dentist or watched a marble countertop being polished then you have seen superabrasive tools in action.

Desert Diamond Industries has provided superabrasive diamond tools since 2008. These products protect workers from the dangers posed by conventional abrasive blades, dangers that include cancer, strokes, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. They also spark less than conventional abrasive blades, reducing the risk of fire.

In addition, Desert Diamond Industries’ vacuum-brazed diamond saw blades and grinding wheels are designed to reduce worker injuries and deaths . That’s because their solid steel designs will not shatter or lose segments. These blades can cut or grind almost any metallic or non-metallic material, including steel, ductile iron, masonry, concrete, and asphalt.


References

“Agents Classified by the IARC Monographs Volumes 1–115”, International Agency for Research on Cancer.

“Silicon Carbide (Total Dust)”, Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Relationships between alumina and bauxite dust exposure and cancer, respiratory and circulatory disease”, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, MC Friesen, et al., March 19, 2009.

“Inflammation in induced sputum after aluminium oxide exposure: an experimental chamber study”, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, LIB Sikkeland, et al. January 19, 2016.

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