With epoxy resins becoming more widely used in Australia, the need to further understand their associated hazards also rises.
The use of epoxy resins to line and repair damaged piping is becoming a more widespread trend in Australia.
But with the wider use of any chemical also comes an increased risk of its associated hazards.
Contact dermatitis is a delayed form of allergy, often manifesting in a rash, which can be contracted from exposure to the skin by epoxy resins. An allergy to epoxy resins can be developed through a process of sensitisation spanning between 10 days and three weeks, or even in some cases years, making it difficult for workers to determine when they actually became sensitised.
Once an allergy to epoxy resins has been contracted, any contact with lower quantities or even fumes of the chemical can bring on an allergic reaction.
“There are about 100,000 chemicals and of those about 4000 have been described as causing allergic reactions,” says Rosemary Nixon from the Skin and Cancer Foundation.
“Epoxy resins are one of our highest causes of allergic reactions, particularly in an occupational setting.”
Contraction of an epoxy allergy relates to four elements: the nature of the chemical, the duration of exposure, the concentration of the chemical and the susceptibility of the individual.
“Only certain chemicals can get through the skin enough to set off this process of making someone allergic,” says Rosemary.
“Obviously the more concentrated the chemical the more allergenic it is.”
Gary Mays from Whywait Plumbing Services, who have invested in the Canadian Pipe Shield resin, currently knows of only two epoxy resin lining technologies available in the Australian plumbing market. Yet he believes they will have a place in the future of the industry due to aging infrastructure.
“We’ve invested fairly substantially in it because infrastructures getting old,” he says.
“There’s certainly a place for it. It’s a lot cheaper to reline an existing pipe than it is to have to rip out walls and replace infrastructure.”
While both the resin and hardener in epoxy resins have the ability to cause an allergy, when cured and set, which can take up to a week; the complete resin does not pose a risk. This makes the mixing and application process the most hazardous for those working with epoxy.
However the development of an allergy still depends on physical contact between the resin and bare skin.
“The actual system is very controlled in that it’s a two part mix that’s occurring within mixing units,” says Gary.
“They’re (the workers) still wearing protective clothing for obvious reasons.”
Protective clothing is one of the major preventers of sensitisation as it can help prevent breaking the skin barrier through irritation and therefore make it less susceptible to other chemicals, as well as help protect workers from allergies associated with direct contact with resins.
Spokesperson for WorkSafe Victoria, Michael Birt, says all appropriate measures to deal with chemicals must be taken when handling and working with epoxy resins.
Guidelines that employers must abide by when working with hazardous chemicals include keeping an up-to-date Material Safety Data Sheet on the property and making sure all employees, emergency services and contractors have access to this. All hazardous materials must also be labelled correctly, as well as identified to the worker handling them.
Failure to comply with the hazardous chemicals information sheet can lead to worker compensation claims as well as legal battles if caught out by WorkSafe inspectors.
“No single measure would be a solution; they’ve got to look at the bigger picture,” Michael says.
“People need to be getting information about the chemicals.”
Just like regulations for chemical use can differ depending on the situation, so too can the safety gear needed for different individuals, and especially those who have already been sensitised.
“The problem with epoxies is they’re very good at getting through gloves,” Rosemary says.
“The standard sorts of rubber gloves don’t provide appropriate protection and unfortunately people often don’t realise that they need specialised gloves if they’re going to handle epoxies.”
The proper education of working with hazardous chemicals is also vital for employees handling toxic resins.
Whywait has not only invested in the product, but also in the education of their staff, with workers being trained in Toronto where Pipe Shield is manufactured.
“The main thing is making sure your staff are very aware of handling the product,” Gary says.
“The application’s just making sure they know how to use the equipment.”
Rosemary has witnessed cases where increased exposure to sensitisers and the onset of an allergic rash has interrupted sleep, or even minimised the ability for parents to pick up their children.
“It’s really important they have appropriate education before they have contact with a chemical,” Rosemary says.
“They may only have one contact with a chemical and they may be allergic, and that’s going to mean they’re allergic for life.”
As Whywait is doing through their automated process of mixing resins, Rosemary says that engineered techniques to ensure workers will have minimal contact with epoxy resins are an effective method of prevention.
“If possible you can substitute the allergenic chemical,” she says.
While the future spread of the use of epoxy resins in Australia is far from defined, their international market remains strong.
“We’ve done massive amounts of work over in Toronto in the Children’s Hospital and the testing that has gone before, after and is ongoing is just unbelievable,” says Gary.
Indeed, it seems that precaution is one of the only ways to approach working with epoxy resins and other hazardous chemicals.
“It’s obviously better to prevent these problems,” Rosemary says.
“There’s no desensitisation available for these sorts of rashes. Once you’ve got the allergy you’re stuck with it.”
Plumbing Connection Summer Quarter December 2011.
The Skin and Cancer Foundation
Whywait Plumbing Services