Whether you are an athlete with a favorite pebbled-grained ball, a fashion devotee with a weakness for alligator belts and ostrich print handbags, or a rancher with a preference for cowhide saddles and calfskin boots, you are someone who gravitates toward fine leather goods.
While the beauty of a professionally finished animal hide is an appreciation widely shared, a knowledge of the health risks surrounding the leather production process is not.
U.S. data research states that the leather tanning industry employs over 23,000 workers (1) at over 111 facilities. Many of these workers are potentially at risk for illness and disease due to VOC emissions that occur during the manufacturing phase of the tanning process. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, leather tanning is defined as follows:
“Leather tanning” is a general term for the numerous processing steps involved in converting animal hides or skins into finished leather. (2) Beginning with a rawhide, there is a basic three-step process for manufacturing leather for goods:
1. Hiding – Preparing the hide by trimming, soaking, fleshing, and removing hair.
2. Tanning – The reaction of collagen fibers from an animal’s hide with chemical agents. This phase includes bating, pickling, wringing, and splitting.
3. Crusting – This finishing process includes conditioning, staking, dry milling, buffing, spray finishing, and plating.
Leather manufacturing can be accomplished by both vegetable tanning and chrome tanning. Chrome tanning accounts for approximately 90 percent of U. S. tanning production, as it tends to be softer and more pliable, has higher thermal stability, and takes less time to produce.
While the National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) does not claim that tanning itself can produce illness, it does state that tannery workers have an increased risk of work-related health problems if they are exposed to certain toxic chemicals (4), two of which exist during the tanning phase of production. Chromium emissions, for example, are known to trigger skin, eyes, blood, and respiratory problems in humans (5). Other contaminants – such as formaldehyde – have proven to be carcinogenic at high levels of exposure, usually caused by way of inhalation and dermal absorption. (7)
A clean and healthy indoor air quality is critical for workers in any trade (3), the leather industry included. Fortunately, most tanneries comply with OSHA recommendations for minimizing worker risk by requiring the use of protective clothing and installing engineering controls. (6) But to completely protect workers from potential indoor air pollution, source capture equipment should be used, and all ambient air-cleaning systems should be regularly maintained to adequately purify the air to minimize occupational risk.
At Air Systems Inc, we serve our customers in the leather-goods industry by providing indoor air quality management solutions by way of our stellar air-cleaning products. Call us today for a free air quality assessment with one of our skilled and experienced indoor environmental specialists.