Protecting the health and welfare of working people is important to preserving an economy that works for everyone. It was with this in mind that in 1970, Congress drastically expanded the responsibility of the Department of Labor by establishing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA. This bureau would go on to elevate labor standards that had grown insufficient due to the rapid expansion of industry, technology, and the size of the workforce in the wake of World War II.
Every workplace, from white-collar to blue-collar and everything in between, is under the standards OSHA determines. The scrap metal industry, where hazards can come in the form of sharp blades, heavy presses, loud noises, and toxic materials is one that certainly benefits from the exacting oversight of OSHA regulations. This is a boon not only to workers, whose safety is so important, but also to employers, who can enjoy the benefits of a stable and productive labor base. Companies can thus invest in the health and safety of their workforce, as they do the difficult and necessary work of keeping shovels out of the ground by keeping our existing metals in circulation. Here’s a brief overview of some of the OSHA safety guidelines for scrap metal recyclers. You can find more information about workplace safety within and beyond the scrap industry on OSHA’s website.
Limit Exposure To Toxic Metals
Even outside the workplace, we all safely handle metals every day. Daily life is impossible without metals. But in industrial settings, where high temperatures, inhalation of pulverized material, and contact with uncommon and unsafe metals come into play, you cannot take the safety of metals for granted. Even many of the metals we handle without incident at home are toxic in high concentrations. Perhaps the most infamously toxic of common metals is lead, a very common non-ferrous metal to encounter in scrapping, but also a known neurotoxin that has effects on developing and adult brains alike and that caused lasting damage well into the 21st century by leaching into drinking water supplies. Lead poisoning due to inadvertent inhalation or ingestion at scrap metal recycling facilities has been a too-common cause of illness among scrap workers. Other toxic metals include cadmium, beryllium, arsenic, chromium, and osmium. Even metals that we don’t traditionally associate with toxicity, such as aluminum, iron, and copper, can be toxic in high concentrations. OSHA recommends the use of proper ventilation systems and personal protective equipment in order to protect against the harmful effects these metals can have on the human body.
When you think of the scrapyard, you think of saws, shears, grapples, granulators, and so many more pieces of equipment that use precision, power, or both on materials a lot harder than the human body. A lot can go wrong, up to and including death, if workers are unsafe in the presence of the equipment and machinery on hand at a facility. OSHA recommends a full complement of personal protective equipment, or PPE, for workers in a scrap metal facility. This includes protective eyewear, footwear, helmets, and gloves. Respirators are necessary in instances where the air is contaminated with pollutants, such as around furnaces. Some machinery, such as the baler, should be equipped with a sensor that detects a human being in dangerous proximity to the machinery and automatically shuts the machine down to prevent accidents.
The machinery necessary to gather and process scrap metals can generate a great deal of noise, which can cause hearing loss in workers over long-term exposure. OSHA estimates that excessive noise in the workplace has caused hearing loss in tens of millions of working Americans. With this hazard in mind, OSHA strongly encourages workplaces to limit the noise levels of equipment by installing soundproofing measures where applicable. In a recycling setting, this often encompasses balers, shears, and saws. Nonetheless, limiting or sequestering the noise this machinery generates is not always viable. If regular noise levels exceed 90 decibels (dB) over the course of an eight-hour workday, OSHA regulations dictate that workers exposed to this noise must wear hearing protection such as earplugs or earmuffs—and not the kind you would wear in the winter, but rather heavy-duty protective gear that considerably reduces noise. In order to quantify the extent to which protective measures are effective, OSHA requires employers whose workplace noise levels regularly exceed 85 dB over the course of each day to provide hearing tests to workers. Good hearing is not only useful at work, but it’s necessary to the quality of life outside the workplace, and preserving it is a major responsibility of employers as a result of these regulations.
Though we popularly imagine exposure to radioactivity to be the province of such industries as radio broadcasting and nuclear power, workers in the scrap industry are not safe from elevated levels of radioactivity. Radioactive materials commonly make their way into scrap yards by way of discarded military and medical equipment, most often in the form of depleted uranium or radioactive isotopes of nickel. The carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, effects of radioactivity on the human body are eminently well-known at this point, but the inability to consistently avoid these effects is what makes radioactive material so pernicious. The pulverization of even trace amounts of radioactive metals in a recycling facility can lead to inhalation of radioactive dust. OSHA recommends installing radiation monitors on the premises to identify the presence of radioactive materials, in addition to encouraging recycling facilities to make clear prohibitions regarding the delivery of anything known or suspected to be radioactive.
It’s easy to take today’s recycling workplace for granted as being as safe as possible given the circumstances and nature of the business. But OSHA safety guidelines for scrap metal recyclers are a relatively recent development in the long history of labor in America, and labor and management alike should be grateful that such oversights exist in an industry where the potential for illness, accidents, and disaster would be so perilously high without them. As a leading scrap lifting magnet and waste handling grapple supplier in Western New York, Moley Magnetics provides magnetic equipment for scrap metal facilities that can do the job effectively and safely.