Those who remember the children’s story, The Elves And The Shoemaker, likely envision the protagonist hunched over his cobbler’s bench, surrounded by tools as he stitched together leather pieces and mended old and worn boots and shoes. But in the picture books, plumes of smoke were not depicted. Neither the shoemaker nor the elves that made and fixed the shoes were shown coughing from toxic fumes or wincing from the sting of dirty air. And yet, back then, it was most certainly the reality of the trade.
Today, shoe repairers fare better than their turn-of-the-century predecessors but indoor air quality (IAQ) is still an issue with which the industry struggles. Of the nearly 8,000 tradesmen (1) in the Shoe & Leather Workers & Repairers Industry nationwide, a significant number of them have a high occupational risk for contact with unhealthy toxic substances. While the process of shoe repair seems quick, clean, and straightforward, it is a trade that requires both dexterity and ability. It also includes numerous exposure risks.
Whether a leather upper of a men’s western boot is torn at the seam, a delicate sandal needs a new heel or a pair of men’s wingtips requires resoling, the activity of repair will create dust and fumes. And though the number of toxins released may seem insignificant to a cobbler at the time of restoration, it is the duration of time spent – day after day and year after year – that is hazardous to a shoe repairer’s health. Sanding and nailing wood and cutting and shaving leather creates dust and particulates. The use of adhesives, dyes, and finishes all generate fumes and gases. Combined, these toxins negatively impact the indoor air quality surrounding the breathing space of the person doing the fixing. (2)
Global epidemiological studies provide evidence that employment in shoe production and repair is associated with an enhanced risk for cancer (primarily nose and nasal sinuses). According to the majority of findings, these types of cancers are induced by exposure to leather dust. Leather dust particles contain numerous chemicals acquired during the process of leather tanning and finishing and some of these compounds exert a carcinogenic effect. (3)
In fact, among the occupational causes of sino-nasal cancer, the International Agency for Research into Cancer (IARC) has implicated the manufacture and repair of leather goods as a leading employment category for contact with hazardous contaminants. What’s more, the IARC asserts that because there is less scientific consensus on the carcinogenic effect of fumes and dust from the repairing process, proper preventive measures have not been implemented by many workplaces thus workers are not adequately protected against this health risk. (3) But cancer is not the only threat.
Electron-microscopic studies showed that the airborne dust samples collected during the machine repair of shoes contained leather, polymers, and finishing materials. (2) And within a variety of common shoe repair and refinishing products, two major chemicals, heptane, and ethanol, often can be found.
Symptoms from exposure to both chemicals can include headache, dizziness, vertigo, lightheadedness, stupor, unconsciousness, and irritation of the upper respiratory tract and eyes. In addition, harmful reproductive consequences are possible. Both chemicals have regulated workplace exposure limits and should be managed with respiratory care in mind. (4)
It is unlikely that Americans will stop wearing shoes and requiring their restoration. So long as this is true, exposure to dust and fumes will be an occupational hazard for cobblers. But shoe repairers needn’t subject themselves to unnecessary risk.
At Air Systems Inc., we serve our customers in the Shoe & Leather Workers & Repairers Industry by providing indoor air quality management solutions in addition to stellar IAQ products. Our air impurity removal systems remove toxic fumes and dust for the health and peace of mind of both employee and business owner.