Compromised Indoor Air Quality Causes Occupational Risk in the Rubber Industry
Whether you compete for a club championship trophy, spend afternoons on the clay with friends, or are simply a pet owner who passes time playing fetch with your dog at the park, you are no stranger to that universally recognized ball wrapped in bright yellow felt. The tennis ball.
Tennis as we know it was first played in the 1870s but before that, the balls used were considerably different than those of today. Fabricated from cloth or leather and filled with rags or horsehair, tennis balls during that time weren’t uniform in design. Modern tennis adopted improvements to the ball that including stitched flannel around the rubber surface and air pressurizing the balls for a reliable bounce. Then along came vulcanized rubber, which quickly became a manufacturing mainstay. Felting was the last major change. (1)
Today, over 300 million tennis balls are produced each year with more than 200 brands worldwide. It takes a lot of rubber to turn out that many balls. As a result, rubber workers are at risk for illness due to air pollution caused by the industrial methods employed during manufacturing. (2)
Harmful Byproducts of Rubber Production
According to the EPA, the occupational risks affecting the rubber industry are directly related to the rubber-making process. In addition, the EPA has identified rubber manufacturing facilities as a major source of HAP (hazardous air pollutant) emissions. (3)
While rubber goods are an important part of modern life, their production involves subjecting varied combinations of hundreds of chemicals to heat, pressure, and catalytic action during the various manufacturing processes. As a consequence, toxic substances and chemical byproducts abound.
The rubber manufacturing industry employs a considerable number of workers. Though the current US Department Of Labor statistics is not available at this time. The fact that in 1989 there were approximately 132,500 workers employed in non-tire rubber production is telling. There are many thousands of rubber workers potentially at risk, many of whom, make tennis balls.
How Does It Happen?
Beginning with a rubber-based core, there is a five-step process for making a tennis ball.
- Crushing – The rubber compound is repeatedly crushed in an open mill
- Compressing – The forms are cut from the rubber core and then compression molded into a thin shell
- Sheeting – The shell is made into a sheet and rolled up, then cooled and cut into semi-circles
- Buffing – Shell halves are combined then buffed and then placed into a cylinder to add grooves before felt is added
- Felting – A machine cuts the fabric so felting may be stuck to the rubber core to create the finished product
Steps 1-3 present the highest risk for unhealthy exposure, according to the National Institute Of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH). Indoor air quality concerns such as contact with amine composites (which are organic derivatives of ammonia) (5) and exposure to hundreds of different chemical emissions in the form of vapors, dust, gases, and fumes (4) are at the top of the NIOSH caution list. Workers are exposed to these toxins – some of them carcinogenic compounds – by way of inhalation and dermal absorption. OSHA, too, has warned workers in the rubber industry about specific health problems affecting the kidneys, lungs, skin, and eyes. Headache, nausea, fever, and dizziness are only a few of the possible symptoms.
Protecting Rubber Industry Workers
Most rubber manufacturing plants (including those that produce tennis balls), comply with OSHA recommendations for minimizing worker risk by way of wearing protective clothing and using engineering controls. (5) But it proves prudent to make sure that source capture equipment is modern and up to date and all ambient air cleaning systems are sufficient to adequately purify the air so workers are not at occupational risk.
At Air Systems Inc., we serve our customers in the rubber manufacturing industry by providing indoor air quality management solutions in addition to our stellar air cleaning products. Contact us today for a free air quality assessment with one of our skilled and experienced indoor environmental specialists.