Safety in Converting

When you play with fire, you probably will be burned. Working in the various areas of the chemical industry, including packaging and converting, sometimes can be similar to playing with fire.

Many years ago I worked for a company that made polyester and alkyd resins. I resigned because I did not like what I thought was a lack of concern for the safety of their employees. A long time after I was gone, the entire plant blew sky high. I subsequently saw the location — it was simply a field.

In the converting and packaging industry, the main safety concerns involve the raw materials, the processing equipment, and housekeeping and environmental considerations. Every minute you are in a plant or laboratory, you should keep your eyes open and be alert to these three areas of concern.

I was once the object of scorn when I refused to run a trial of an adhesive in a plant that reeked with the odor of MEK while the owner roamed the entire premises smoking a cigarette. Perhaps I did act in an unusual fashion with my insistence on safety, but I didn't want that to be the last trial I ever conducted.

Many raw materials used in converting and packaging can be dangerous. Make certain you are thoroughly familiar with the Material Safety Data Sheets for these products. Are they flammable? Do they contain hazardous materials that you should not breathe or allow to contact your skin? Will they react with other materials in the area to produce an unsafe condition or product?

We are fortunate today that Material Safety Data Sheets exist for almost every single product you can imagine. This simply means nobody has even the slightest excuse not to handle everything with which they come into contact in a very safe manner.

Processing equipment is an all too common cause of accidents in our industry. Most of this equipment involves moving parts of one sort or another. When near such equipment, be alert to what the machine is doing and make a mental note of how that could cause harm to you.

Does the process involve a pinch point that could entrap a digit, a limb, or a piece of your clothing? Does the unit have a knife or other sharp edge that could cut or sever?

Is the processing unit an oven or does it have an extrusion die or other component that becomes extremely hot? Burns are very common accidents in plants that make and use adhesives and coatings.

Housekeeping and environmental considerations refer to the general area of processing for the converting and packaging industries. Does the area have spilled material that has made a puddle on the floor to cause a slipping hazard? Are rags containing solvents used to clean equipment stored properly so they do not spontaneously combust?

This column cannot cover all the aspects of safety that you should observe. Rather let it be a reminder that you are the person who is responsible for your safety. Keep the pointers listed here and others that you have heard in mind constantly. Always be alert.

David J. Bentley Jr. is a recognized industry expert in polymers, laminations, and coatings with more than 30 years of experience in R&D and technical service. Contact him at dbentley@unm.edu.


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