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WATCH: Sandblasters Work to Avoid Silicosis Like the Plague

Inside blasting bay at Sandman's Sandblasting & Coatings.
Inside blasting bay at Sandman's Sandblasting & Coatings.

Business owner, Richard Deys, and his roughly 20-person staff are breathing easier these days.

Deys is the founder and co-owner of Sandman’s Sandblasting and Coatings. The Manchester, New York company specializes in blasting, spray coating, and fabrication. Blasting is a general term used to describe the act of propelling very fine bits of material at a high speed to clean or etch a surface.

And it’s dirty work. Sand used to be the most commonly used material, but since that causes the incurable lung disease silicosis, blasters like the Sandman’s team are now using other materials in its place.

“We use steel shot, aluminum oxide, plastic, things like that. We have a full filter system that sucks the dust out of the [blasting] bays and we're fully suited to keep the dust out of the lungs,” says Deys.

Any small, relatively uniform particles will work, such as walnut shells, sodium bicarbonate, and bits of coconut shells. And the operations take place in a carefully controlled environment, using an alternate air supply, pressurized helmets, and proper ventilation.

Workers also need ear protection from the roaring sounds, and need to avoid contact with crushed glass — the grit recently used to recondition a C-5 Galaxy military aircraft from the late 1960s. The C-5 is one of the largest military planes in the world and is designed to transport heavy cargo globally.  

A C-5 Galaxy aircraft from the 1960s after it was reconditioned.
A C-5 Galaxy aircraft from the 1960s after it was reconditioned.

“Our job was to go through and recondition it so that it wouldn’t fall apart or corrode - and to clean those areas up and put it back to the original look that they had of the white with the blue stripe,” says Deys.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 2 million American workers are at risk of developing silicosis and that more than 100,000 of these workers are employed as sandblasters.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has proposed tougher regulations targeting silicosis and further limiting the level of exposure many workers in construction, mining, and sandblasting have experienced. The benchmark proposed by OSHA back in 2011 would cut in half the current Permissible Exposure Levels for respirable silica over eight hours.

“There’s a lot of ignorance out there to the laws. A lot of employers don’t have an on-site health and safety person, and they are not actually are aware of the rules,” says Jeanne DiNike. DiNike’s environmental consulting firm supplies companies with personal pumps for workers to wear and monitor their silica exposure.

Still, Deys admits there is room for error in Sandman’s safety precautions. But over time the man in charge has reinvented the technology used in house and has kept up with OSHA-required training sessions and testing.

“We look for seven basic metals. We take a sample, send it out, and we get a report. I've never had anything with levels that were high enough to be alerted,” adds Deys.

Sandman's has worked on planes, trains, automobiles, and locomotives for customers across the United States and eastern Canada. The team will restore steam engines in Pennsylvania later this year.

For more background visit the Center for Public Integrity's report on silicosis.

Sasha-Ann Simons joined the team at WXXI News in 2015 as a Multimedia Reporter/Producer. She tells stories about the innovation economy and technology in upstate New York and also does general assignment reporting. Sasha-Ann is the host of Arts InFocus, WXXI-TV's weekly arts and culture program. She is also a fill-in host and regular contributor to Need To Know.
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