In 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act set the groundwork for establishing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This organization holds power to visit and inspect work facilities to ensure that rules and regulations protecting employees are being followed. Since their inception, the number of workplace fatalities has fallen from 38 per day in 1970 to 14 per day in 2017. While this reduction is admirable, workplace injuries and fatalities still happen more often than they should.
As with many other industries, rubber recycling plants inherently present hazards for employees. It is the responsibility of facility owners to understand the harmful potential of equipment, materials, and processes and proactively address them. By identifying hazards and providing employees with the proper training and equipment, they can mitigate the risks and avoid accidents and injuries.
Recycling plants collect waste tires from tire shops and clean-up sites from many miles around. These shipments of heavy tires come in on large trucks. Because of their sheer weight and size, they must be unloaded and transported through the facility using forklifts and other heavy equipment. Once processed, the finished product, whether it be wire-free mulch or tire-derived aggregate, is bagged and shipped out to customers. All of this movement amounts to a large number of heavy vehicles moving around the recycling facility regularly.
It can be challenging to track people when driving a large truck or forklift. Keeping employees safe requires establishing protocols and procedures so that vehicles and people cross paths only when necessary. Additionally, fitting machinery with working backup alarms and front lights provides an extra warning to those on foot, allowing them to keep clear of the path of vehicles.
A survey of the conditions at rubber recycling plants performed in 2003 concluded that the noise levels were a significant concern. The heavy machinery creates a lot of noise as it shreds and cuts through car and truck tires. The noise generated by these machines ranged between 85 and 100 dBA. For comparison, a regular conversation is usually around 60 dBA, and a motorcycle runs at about 95dBA. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), prolonged exposure to noise above 70 dBA is enough to cause hearing damage.
Mitigating employee exposure is straightforward, though. Employers should provide hearing protection to those working on or near noisy equipment. Precautions should also be taken by employees wearing such gear to be aware of potential hazards around them as they will not hear auditory warnings.
Recycling rubber tires inevitably creates rubber dust. These fine particles pose a double threat. First, they are an inhalation hazard. All employees should have access to masks or respirators to eliminate the probability of breathing these toxic particulates.
Second, the accumulation of rubber dust inside machinery and on surfaces throughout the facility can increase friction and heat. This additional wear is hard on the mechanical parts, causing excess wear and tear. It can also be the source of a spark, igniting this highly flammable dust causing a fire or an explosion.
Regularly removing rubber dust from surfaces, ducts, and machinery needs to be part of a cleaning routine to maintain safety within the recycling plant. Because the dust itself can generate static electricity, it is essential to use clean-up methods that do not cause the dust to fly into the air. Some acceptable options include:
- Vacuuming the dust from surfaces
- Blowing particles from surfaces using compressed air at less than 30psi to avoid creating large clouds of rubber dust
- Brushing away debris with steel or aluminum brooms or scrapers to minimize static sparks
Rubber car and truck tires are a well-known fire hazard. As the internal temperature of a pile of rubber rises, it becomes increasingly difficult to cool. If it reaches a certain temperature threshold, cooling becomes nearly impossible, and fire becomes inevitable. Tire fires are toxic and difficult to extinguish. For this reason, state and local authorities establish guidelines and requirements for tire transport and storage to minimize the risks of a fire starting.
It is essential to check with local authorities in your area for rules and regulations to prevent tire fires. Be prepared to meet requirements such as the following:
- Store tires at least 20-50 feet from any building.
- Regularly monitor the temperature of stored tires. The temperature at 6 feet of depth should not exceed 120° F.
- Limit pile size to 2,500-5,000 sq. ft. piles and leave space between tire piles so that flames cannot spread from one pile to another.
- Create a rotation system that does not allow tires to sit and rot in one spot for extended periods.
Machinery like conveyor belts, primary shredders, and grinders all have moving parts capable of causing severe injury. Employees should be aware of the potential for injury and should always remain alert when working around these machines.
Even the best tire cutting equipment breaks down from time to time. Repairs and upkeep are an expected part of recycling tires. At some point, mechanics will need to open equipment up to rotate shredding knives or sharpen the blades. Having a well-established lockout/tagout procedure is vital to preventing injuries during maintenance and repairs. Machinery that jumps to life at the wrong moment could be the cause of significant injury.
Tire recycling is quickly becoming a vital part of our economy, taking waste rubber tires and transforming them into value-added products for use in different industries. Operating a safe facility requires educating employees on the best safety practices and providing them with the tools to protect themselves. Most accidents are avoidable with the proper preparation and preventative steps in place.