Spray polyurethane foam has become an increasingly popular insulation material used in residential and commercial construction. According to Fed/OSHA, the use of SPF insulation has increased by 60% in the past five years.
Employers and workers alike should be aware of hazards that are associated with SPF insulation as such products can sicken and cause long-term health problems for workers. Besides the suffering of your employees, this can also result in OSHA fines, higher workers’ compensation rates and productivity problems.
Here’s what you need to know to keep employees working with these substances safe.
One of the major hazards associated with SPF insulation is worker exposure to isocyanates, a family of highly hazardous chemicals that can irritate the mucous membranes of the eyes and the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts.
Isocyanates include methylene bisphenyl diisocyanate, toluene diisocyanate, hexamethylene diisocyanate and isophorone diisocyanate. Direct skin contact can also cause marked inflammation.
Symptoms from immediate exposure to isocyanates can include:
- Shortness of breath
- Sore throat
- Chest tightness
Symptoms from longer exposure to isocyanates can include:
- Reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS)
- Hypersensitivity pneumonitis, or inflammation of the lung
Working in a confined environment when applying SPF insulation in some areas such as crawl spaces and attics can also pose problems. In a confined space, there is always the danger of a build-up of gases or decreased oxygen levels. Employers must follow Cal/OSHA’s confined space entry procedures for this type of work.
Certain conditions can also cause SPF insulation to ignite, such as having an ignition source nearby.
Once a fire starts, there is also the potential to further release toxic chemicals into the air. To prevent a fire from happening in the first place, make sure workers have adequate ventilation and turn off any sources of ignition (such as gas stoves, pilot lights, dryers and light switches).
If a fire does occur, an ABC fire extinguisher appropriate for SPF should be available when working with this material.
Other chemical hazards associated with SPF insulation are:
- Flame-retardants in the material, which have the potential to build up in the body and are associated with various cancers and reproductive problems in women.
- Solvents, which can impair mental acuity, irritate mucous membranes, and cause headaches and loss of coordination.
- Amines, which irritate the eyes and nose and cause blurred vision.
Safe work practices
To help prevent the risk of injury or death, make sure workers become familiar with these various chemical hazards. Provide them with training and safety data sheets that communicate the hazards of chemical products. The SDS will also list the proper personal protective equipment (safety goggles, chemical-resistant full-coverage clothing, and gloves) recommended by the manufacturer.
Make sure to let building occupants know about the application schedule, chemical hazards and emergency procedures. Employees who are not wearing protective equipment must not be allowed in the work area.
The work area should be:
- Properly ventilated, including an exhaust ventilation system, and
- Isolated with a plastic sheeting to prevent chemical spread.
A respirator is also required when spraying SPF; the employee must be medically evaluated for respirator use, and fit-tested to ensure a proper fit. One of the following types of respirators should be used:
- Full-face supplied air respirator.
- Powered air purifying respirator.
- Full-face respirator with organic vapor cartridges and an N95 filter pad over the cartridges.
After the work is complete, it is typically safe to enter the area when the insulating foam has hardened to the point where it is no longer wet or sticky. This could range from about 12 hours after the end of spraying for unprotected workers, to 24 hours for residents. Conditions may also depend on the temperature, humidity and the amount of foam sprayed.
Good housekeeping is crucial. Clean up the work area, remove protective clothing and wash up immediately.
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