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Investigation into sand-blasting could reveal workplace illness

Employers and employees alike in North Carolina may be interested in the findings of a federal investigation in Baltimore into a process known as sand-blasting. Sand-blasting is a process whereby residue such as paint and rust are cleaned from the exterior of ships and storage tanks among other surfaces. Discarded remains from the production of copper and burning of coal, known as slag, are the main components used to sand-blast on shipyards.

Copper and coal slag could contain poisonous substances such as arsenic, and prolonged exposure to these could result in workplace diseases.

Companies involved with sand-blasting have said that they are following safety measures for their employees by providing them with safety gear and ensuring that they are not over-exposed to coal and copper slag. Many companies have issued statements that they are following federal regulations relating to selling and manufacturing slag.

Companies are also switching to blasting high-pressure water on the hull of ships to produce the same result as sand-blasting, but sand-blasting is still the preferred method of removal when it comes to steel surfaces.

Given the growing concern that employees are not aware of the hazards they are being exposed to, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has vowed to look into the safety of the hazardous materials. The administration has said that prolonged use of the toxic material in the waste of copper and burnt coal could result in exposure exceeding permissible limits.

The dangers of the toxic substances present in copper and coal slag are life-threatening. Beryllium is not only carcinogenic but taking it in over a sustained period can cause breathing and heart problems and heart weakness in a condition known as chronic beryllium disease. Arsenic is another cancerous toxin and long-term exposure to this can cause cancer in any part of the body including lungs and the bladder.

For workers exposed to the toxic materials during the course of their employment, the investigation could be too little, too late. However, because their illness was developed on the job, they could become eligible for workers' compensation. This could cover their medical expenses and other benefits that would likely ease their financial burden by providing for the loss of income due to a work-related illness.

Source: Baltimore Sun, "Federal agency investigating sand-blasting hazards," Timothy B. Wheeler, Feb. 26, 2012

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