Personal protective equipment or PPE is defined by OSHA to be “equipment worn to minimize exposure to hazards that cause serious workplace injuries and illnesses. These injuries and illnesses may result from contact with chemical, radiological, physical, electrical, mechanical, or other workplace hazards.” PPE varies based on industrial application – a chemist's PPE would differ from the PPE worn by abrasive blasters.
Abrasive blasters and those around them face the release of toxins into the air from three places; the substrate being blasted, the coating covering the substrate, and from the abrasive itself. In a study put forth by the CDC (Evaluation of Substitute Materials for Silica Sand in Abrasive Blasting) several different kinds of abrasives were tested. KTA-Tator, Inc. found that "all of the silica alternative abrasives (Coal slag, Nickel slag, Staurolite, Copper slag, Garnet, and Steel grit) had at least four hazardous health-related agents." In plain language, this means that the silica alternative abrasives can create their own unique health issues.
OSHA's top recommendation in its Fact Sheet on Protecting Workers from the Hazards of Abrasive Blasting Materials is to use "a less toxic abrasive blasting material.” The fact sheet lists “ Sponge" as one of the few identified "Less Toxic Abrasives.” Sponge Media is the only “less toxic abrasive” capable of creating a profile on steel adequate for long term coating performance.
Abrasive blasting PPE is typically designed to protect the respiratory system, vision, and hearing. With this in mind, OSHA's official rule is "abrasive blasting operators must wear NIOSH-certified Type CE abrasive blasting respirators when working in enclosed or confined spaces; or using abrasive media that contains more than one percent crystalline silica."
These Type CE abrasive blasting respirators are commonly known as air fed blast hoods. Air fed hoods are large hoods that fully cover a blaster’s head, neck, and shoulders. Clean air is pumped into the hood from a place away from the blast site to ensure the blaster is not breathing in dust particles. Sometimes, these hoods integrate with a blast suit, keeping a blaster cool while working in the summer. Air fed hoods have clear plastic on the front of the helmet typically allowing the blaster to forgo additional eye protection. Hearing protection is still needed for workers using these hoods. Fit Testing must be done for all tight fighting respiratory PPE.
There are two main styles of ear protection recommended in industrial work like construction, manufacturing, or fabrication. The first is in-ear hearing protection. This style is typically a small piece of compressible foam that can be squeezed and placed in the ear canal. The piece of foam expands in the ear canal creating a seal between the outside noise and the inner ear.
The other common type of hearing protection is called “over ear hearing protection.” Over ear protection is typically an earmuff style. They fit over your ears and can be used in conjunction with in-ear protection (foam plugs). Earmuff hearing protection can also have limits.
It is generally recommended to use both methods of protection together when abrasive blasting. Check the product packaging and labels to confirm the decibel rating to ensure adequate protection.
A blaster may wear additional protective padding to lessen the impact of abrasive rebound. Certain abrasives such as steel grit and steel shot ricochet at a higher, harder rate than abrasives like Sponge MediaTM.
Many people don't realize that it isn't just the blaster that is at risk from contracting respiratory diseases like silicosis or Berylliosis (chronic beryllium disease). People in the area of abrasive blasting are also at risk. This includes industrial laborers like pot tenders, sweepers, and other assistants, but also any other personnel that may be on the jobsite including project managers and supervisors outside the immediate blasting range.
Always refer to the OSHA Fact Sheet titled, “Protecting Workers from the Hazards of Abrasive Blasting Materials" before doing any kind of abrasive blasting. When possible, choose an abrasive blasting media that OSHA has deemed a “less toxic blasting material.”
As a reminder, always read your abrasive blasting equipment’s manual. Please follow all safety and operating instructions. Proper PPE is required to ensure safety of blasters and those working around them.