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Health and safety is no longer just an irritant for industrial finishing workshops, but is integral to everyday operations.

Getting it right is not just a legal requirement, but can reduce insurance premiums and the costs associated with employee sickness.

When it comes to the use of abrasives, ensuring that processes and systems are as safe as possible goes a long way towards optimising productivity and efficiency.

This is true of both capital equipment and consumables, as well as ancillary items such as safety flooring.

Perhaps the most significant safety issue with regard to abrasive products selection is vibration.

Employees subject to excess vibration in their work could become affected by hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS).

This can manifest itself in a variety of symptoms, the most common being vibration white finger (VWF), a whitening of the fingers that can lead to circulatory, joint, muscle and nerve problems.

In the worst cases, the employee has to stop work altogether and, with both of these being recognised industrial diseases, may consider legal action if they believe they have been subjected to excessive vibration.

This is an area that is becoming subject to tighter legislation.

The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 put a duty on employers to take action to ensure their staff are not exposed to a daily ‘exposure action value’ above 2.5m/s2 or an overall exposure limit value of 5m/s2.

Vibration is measured using a sensor placed on the tool or part where the operator normally holds it, and is calculated by summing the accelerations measured along the three principal axes, with the exposure values calculated by averaging the exposure over an eight-hour period.

For equipment purchased before 6 July 2007, the vibration levels mentioned above come into force from 6 July 2010.

However, there are many recent innovations by the leading manufacturers that make processes safer and less physically demanding – going a long way towards ensuring equipment complies with the regulations – with no negative impact on quality or productivity.

These include flexible discs for weld grinding, de-scaling, heavy de-burring and de-flashing of flame-cut parts.

These resin-bonded products, with their thin, flexible construction, offer better balance characteristics, significantly reducing vibration.

Meanwhile, coated abrasive belts deliver a fast cut and more consistent finish, providing a lower-vibration alternative to grinding wheels.

Flexible grinding discs and coated abrasive belts from 3M use Cubitron, a ceramic aluminium oxide mineral that contains multiple layers of abrasive, with each structure exposing a new layer as it wears down, to deliver a consistent, predictable finish.

This technology reduces the pressure that the operator needs to apply, and can even cut process steps, lowering the time spent at the abrasive stage and operator exposure to vibration.

The force being applied by any machinery being used can also impact health and safety.

Typically, an abrasive disc and a backing pad will be fixed to the machine.

However, a backing pad that is too soft may not deliver a sufficiently aggressive action.

Here, replacement with a ribbed high-performance pad will enhance reinforcement and also assist in delivering the required impact pressure, without adding to vibration.

Another potential health-and-safety problem occurs when wire brushes are used for applications such as the removal of weld discoloration, cleaning, finishing and deburring where extreme conformability is required.

Wire brushes present a potentially significant hazard for operators, as small pieces of wire can become detached from the brush as it wears, and fly off.

Another method of removing weld discoloration is the use of pickling acids, which not only give off unpleasant fumes, but are corrosive and harmful if splashed onto the skin and present potential environmental issues if not disposed of correctly.

One solution that addresses both of these issues is individual moulded discs impregnated with abrasive and then grouped together to form a brush.

Bristle technology, again developed by 3M, can be adapted depending on the levels of aggression and conformability required, or even offered in a single-disc format for direct mounting onto an angle grinder.

These products offer optimal safety with no risk of flying debris from the brush or disc, alongside minimal vibration and noise.

And, unlike some traditional abrasive products that wear at uneven rates across their surface, the uniform wear delivered by the ceramic aluminium-oxide mineral means it can be used until the mineral is completely worn out.

It isn’t just by correct abrasive product selection that operator safety can be optimised.

Creating the safest possible working environment as a whole is also key.

The installation of comfortable, high-performance anti-fatigue matting systems in industrial environments is a decision that can not only enhance short-term productivity, but also save money.

The majority of people that work standing up all day suffer some form of pain or discomfort in the neck, spinal column, lower back, thighs, knees, calves, feet and ankles.

According to the Second European Survey on Working Conditions by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 30 per cent of all Europeans suffer from backache, while 23 per cent of all health-related absenteeism is due to work causes.

In fact, musculoskeletal disorders account for up to half of all work-related ill health and affect more than 40m European workers.

The costs of this to companies are multiple – lower productivity and work quality, potential loss of experienced staff and the associated recruitment and training costs of their replacements, to say nothing of potential compensation and insurance costs.

However, through the use of innovative materials, modern anti-fatigue matting products provide cushioned support evenly distributed across the bottom of the shoe, reducing leg and back fatigue.

Unlike rubber-based coverings, these products offer consistent performance throughout their service life and have an anti-slip action to reduce the risk of slips and falls.

They are also lightweight and easy to clean, while offering optimal chemical resistance to oil, grease and detergents, absorbing noise and reducing damage to dropped tools and products.

Combining an optimal working environment with the most appropriate equipment will not only contribute to reduced work-related sickness among operators, but enhances productivity by reducing process steps and time spent at the abrasive stage.

3M Abrasive Systems Division

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