What You Need to Know About Pollution Prevention in Your Shop
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What You Need to Know About Pollution Prevention in Your Shop

Protecting yourself, your employees and your community are just a few reasons why you want to be sure that your shop is compliant with all of the current safety regulations. One of the most important areas of safety that is often overlooked is the ventilation of your print shop.

By Johnny Duncan

Protecting the air in your shop and the outside environment is a responsibility that can be overlooked due to “normal” business activities, but failure to do so can cost your business more than just fines.

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  • Potential hazards
    Some may ask, “So what’s the big deal? We’ve been working in this stuff for years with no problem.” I’m glad you asked. The major concern in print shops (screenprinting, digital, etc.), is the potential health hazards of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC). Volatile Organic Compounds are defined by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as organic compounds which participate in atmospheric photochemical reactions. Basically, a VOC is anything that evaporates and causes air pollution.

    VOCs can cause a host of health problems from minor sinus irritations to major breathing difficulties to life-threatening cancers. The risks are dangerous enough to cause OSHA to develop specific guidelines regarding ventilation practices in sign print shops. The ventilation systems required can range from simple (inexpensive) to complex depending on the size of your business and the amount of chemicals used.

    “Usually, general building ventilation doesn’t cut it,” states Marci Kinter, SGIA Vice President-Government Affairs. “Most shop owners will need to evaluate their situation to determine what type of ventilation system is required. The business owner’s concern should be for the health of their employees, making sure that they are not overexposing them and the surrounding community to hazardous chemicals.”

    Most people are oblivious to the fact that their very own HVAC system may be contributing to the air pollution in their shops and offices. “Some people are not aware of the positive and negative pressures that an HVAC produces in order to function,” notes Jeff Vickers, Director of Compliance with Nazdar. “Even if your shop is not part of your office HVAC, you could still be exposed to the hazards of your shop. Your HVAC may be sucking in outside air in order to function. This means air from your shop as well.”

    “The whole reason for guidelines is for the safety of people,” continues Vickers, “Safety affects the company’s bottom line in terms of insurance costs, worker’s compensation and lost productivity.” In other words, ventilation requirements are not in place to make it difficult to do business, but to protect your business and your people.

    Determining exposures
    You could walk around your shop today sniffing for hazardous chemicals, but that usually won’t help you to determine what hazards exist. As Marci Kinter explains, “You’ll usually smell the chemicals before they hurt you, but that is the design of the chemical. Some of them purposely have a high odor threshold that alerts you to the upcoming danger. Your first step should be to examine your Material Safety Data Sheets to determine what hazards might exist with the chemicals that you use.”

    Almost every product that you purchase for your shop comes with Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). These provide valuable information regarding the inks and finishes you are using, as well as other potentially hazardous products in your shop. In addition to OSHA’s requirement that these be made available to your employees, you should also refer to them each time you purchase a chemical that you haven’t used before. The MSDS as well as relevant documents from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will help you in determining the proper ventilation system for your business.

    After reviewing the MSDS, Jeff Vickers suggests that you use the following resources to help you to determine what type of ventilation system you will need: First, Vickers suggests that you contact your Worker’s Compensation insurance carrier. “Every carrier has a loss prevention services department that can send someone out to evaluate your operation. You’re already paying them and they will want to assist you to help in preventing work loss.”

    Second, use your local OSHA consultation service. “Many people are afraid to bring OSHA to their shop,” states Vickers, “But they are one of your greatest resources. They won’t fine you for not being compliant because you are asking them to help you become compliant.” Members from OSHA can evaluate the quality of air in your shop and offer recommendations for ventilation if the need is determined.

    Third, your business can purchase organic vapor monitors for employees to wear. They are clip-on badges that monitor the air in an eight hour period. The monitors are sent to a lab where an analysis is conducted to determine air quality. The results are sent to you so that you are able to decide what is needed for your shop. You can either request assistance from OSHA or your Worker’s Compensation insurance carrier to look over the lab results and to make recommendations.

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    The final option is to hire a private consultant. “I used to be one, so I can offer this opinion:” says Vickers, “Most are qualified and used to be screen printers, but they are expensive and if you require further consultation, they charge you even more.” The option is available, but with OSHA willing to come on site and with your Worker’s Compensation carrier available, you may want to utilize them first.

    The next step
    After determining the type of ventilation system you will need, your next step is to complete the project in a timely manner. You’ve already notified OSHA and your insurance company and now they are aware of the situation. Both will allow you sufficient time to complete the project, but don’t put it off.

    Regardless of the regulations, you found that you need the system in order to protect those involved in the work. The point is to do the right thing because it is right, not because you are forced to comply.

    The type of ventilation system required will vary greatly between manufactures of the inks and equipment that you use. However, the manufacturer is another good source for ventilation information. Different printers output different levels of by-product and fumes into the air. You will need to confer with the supplier and manufacturer to calculate the amount of airflow required to suit your operation room.

    In addition, there are formula's you need to use to calculate the amount of airflow required based on the size of the room. If waste and ink products are to be stored in the same room, they will need to be taken into account, as does the recycling of air and the final exit location from the workroom.

    Even after you have your new ventilation system operational, check it often using the same resources you’ve used to determine the system. Care and maintenance should be taken to keep the system operational. The ventilation system plays an important role in the everyday work of your shop. Some businesses have been known to shut off the normal exhaust systems from the dryer in order to vent the hot exhaust into the plant in the winter time. It makes sense to warm the shop, but causes an obvious hazardous condition. Rather than venting hot exhaust into the plant, it would be better to use a heat exchanger. Using an example like this should help you to develop a keen eye for alternate solutions rather than interfering with the ventilation process.

    Your whole thought process must now be tuned to keeping the VOCs out of the workplace. In doing so, you must also be careful to not simply send the VOCs to the outside air. As Marci notes, “OSHA regulates what you do with the indoor air. Once the polluted air leaves the building, it is now regulated by EPA. They have different standards for the quality of air that you send outside.”

    There is no need to become overwhelmed with what might be required for your shop. The main thing is to do what is necessary to protect the health of your business and all who are in it. A good ventilation system does not have to cost a lot and the savings are greater in the long run. The installation of extraction equipment, such as floor level and hood extraction in screen cleaning areas, may be enough to satisfy requirements for additional ventilation.

    It could be that a change in the chemicals themselves may solve the problem. There are several manufacturers of such solvent blends, and some are highly effective, highly efficient, and can even cost less in use than traditional highly evaporative solvents. Some companies will also manufacture recirculation equipment for safer solvent use, which will decrease the cost in use even more.

    The point is to be aware of ventilation needs for your business and all of tools available to help eliminate pollution from your shop. All of the help you need is just phone calls away. Use all of the resources recommended by Jeff Vickers and Marci Kinter to begin today creating a safer, more efficient work environment. Here are just a few:

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