Safety should be the top priority in any workplace – and none more so than in an industry where employees are handling potentially hazardous substances.
The health and safety considerations surrounding working with composite materials are particularly stringent due to the dust that is produced.
© Composite_Carbonman / Shutterstock
The composites industry is growing fast, as new processes, materials and applications are being developed continually. These include hybrid virgin and recycled fibres and using more automated and faster manufacturing processes.
The market for global composite materials is currently growing at around 5% per year, while the demand for carbon fibre is growing at 12% a year. Britain’s composites product market is on track to grow to £12 billion by 2030, according to the UK Composites Strategy, launched in 2016.
Composite materials are composed of at least two materials that combine to provide superior properties. The main types used in industry are fibre reinforced polymer composites – known as FRPs.
Normally, they combine glass, carbon, polymer, aramid or natural fibres in a polymer matrix. Composites can also include fillers or nanomaterial such as graphene. Other matrix materials can be used.
Composites are very durable, efficient and versatile. Typically, they offer stronger, yet lighter solutions in comparison with traditional materials.
Various composite materials in industry can cause health concerns. A polymer matrix (a resin) is a vital component of composite structures. The most common resins are vinyl esters and polyester epoxies.
Everyone working with resins must be aware of the health risks associated with exposure to these types of materials. The main risks are to the lungs, skin and eyes. When working with any resin system, it is compulsory to wear the appropriate PPE at all times.
Working with epoxy, vinyl esters, polyester and phenolic materials can create health risks to the central nervous system, as well as the skin, lungs and eyes. It can lead to respiratory sensitivity, dermatitis, conjunctivitis and potential carcinogenic effects on the DNA.
Catalysts and initiators are referred to respectively as Part B of an epoxy system and MEKP. They cause polymerisation to take place in the resin system. Some examples include benzol peroxide and methyl ethyl ketone peroxide.
Working with materials such as glass fibre and carbon fibre can cause skin and respiratory irritation and dermatitis. These chemicals require total adherence to the latest safety precautions, including the relevant PPE specific to the chemicals involved.
By law, employees must also have access to Material Safety Data Sheets and the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System relating to every chemical material they work with.
The main worry when working with reinforcement materials is the irritation they can cause when in direct contact with the skin. Fibres can lodge in skin pores, causing exceptional irritation.
Fibreglass dust can be especially harmful: while the glass fibre itself is chemically inert, the resin isn’t when added to the fibre. Workers must be educated in the proper use of these materials and must always wear the appropriate PPE. This includes a face shield; safety glasses; high quality Latex, Nitrile or Butyl rubber gloves; coveralls designed to protect the wearer from fine dust particles; dust particulate filter masks; and wearable powdered filter systems. Workers should also wear earplugs or headsets for noise reduction purposes.
Employers must take all possible steps to protect the workforce, including training employees working with composite materials and making them aware of the health effects of fibres and chemical compounds if protective measures aren’t followed.
Dust extraction measures
In addition, the leading solution for dust extraction in the composites industry is the AirBench – including downdraught benches, cross-draught systems and dust control booths.
AirBench solutions ensure carbon fibre and GRP dust are captured at source. This market-leading composite dust control solution is used by every UK F1 team for carbon fibre dust extraction.
The AirBench captures composite dusts without operator intervention or adjustment, drawing them down through the downdraught bench’s work surface into the integral filters.
We recommend our FN type heavy duty downdraught bench for carbon fibre and our FN type bench with single stage A-type filters for GRP.
For further details, or to book a demo, contact our team today.
We’re the leading manufacturer of downdraught benches and cross draught extraction systems in the UK, with more than 10,000 extraction systems in service in Britain and overseas.