Running On Fumes

In the athletic shoe industry, occupational exposure to toxic chemicals can be avoided with the use of fume extraction systems.

Running On Fumes 1

The fitness craze of the last 30 years has led to a bevy of choices regarding sport-related footwear. Alternatives beyond the basic walking and running shoe include tennis, aerobic, basketball and cross-training brands. Change took a long time in coming but once it did, the industry never stopped advancing and with the transformation, came an increase in occupational hazards to workers who assembled the shoes. Inhalation of chemicals like phthalates and nitrosamine (1), vapors from solvents and adhesives (2), and fumes arising from heated compounds (3) are all elements of risk for employees in the industry.

Well before occupational threats were a concern in footwear manufacturing, competitors in Ancient Greece ran barefoot during athletic contests. Later, Roman couriers delivered messages by running in thin-soled sandals. By the late 1800s, thanks to Charles Goodyear’s discovery of vulcanized rubber in 1839, people all over Europe wore comfortable – yet rudimentary – rubber-soled shoes called plimsolls. Redesign continued. Fifty years passed before the US Rubber Company created a rubber sneaker with a canvas top, called “Keds”. They were mass-produced the same year Marquis Converse debuted his All-Star basketball shoe in 1917. A mere seven years after that, Adolph Dassler (of “Adidas” fame) and his brother Rudolph (who later started Puma) debuted a running shoe with an arch support – the same style Jesse Owens would go on to compete in during the 1936 Olympics. On and on new shoe designs went, with improvements every athletic step of the way.

By 1990, fitness shoes were no longer just for athletes. Consumers bought 15 million pairs, most of them for comfort, rather than running. And for every pair – 30 million shoes – the industry was responsible for their construction.

Athletic shoes are made from a combination of materials both natural and synthetic, depending on the activity and application. Leather, suede, nylon, rubber and polyurethane make up the major resources for the modern day sports shoe. Turning those materials into a comfortable, functioning shoe, is a lengthy manufacturing process with no room for error.

Vulcanization, the same groundbreaking manufacturing technique that Goodyear used to combine rubber with sulfur, is still used today. The method that made the revolutionary plimsoll is still necessary to prevent the rubber from hardening, thus creating a pliable rubber sole.

With the advancements in materials and design, come inherent health risks to the personnel who create the product. Athletic shoe workers who are exposed to dusts and fumes from chemicals, such as toluene, have been proven to have an increase in respiratory disease and cancers as a result. (4)

Toluene is a clear, colorless liquid with a distinctive smell. It occurs naturally in crude oil and the tolu tree. It is used in a variety of capacities, including the manufacture of adhesives and rubber. (5) Occupational over-exposure to toluene can result in unconsciousness, cessation of breath and even death. (6) It is crucial that those who work in the athletic shoe manufacturing industry practice safe preventative measures so over-exposure cannot occur.

At Air Systems Inc., we serve our customers in the athletic shoe manufacturing industry by identifying areas of potential risk to their employees. We supply them with stellar products that will properly ventilate and remove air impurities so that over-exposure to toxic chemicals cannot occur. Contact us today for a free safety program estimate with one of our skilled and experienced clean air specialists.