Not to be sniffed at

factory 20012021
factory 20012021

In the wake of REACH, the aerospace aftermarket still needs to get to grips with dust extraction, says Minden Systems’ managing director & sales, Les Brooker.

In the wake of REACH, the aerospace aftermarket still needs to get to grips with dust extraction, says Minden Systems’ managing director & sales, Les Brooker.

It’s hard to believe that the REACH Directive is nearly 13 years old, but there is still work to do to eradicate the exposure of dangerous substances to workers in the aerospace industry.

Born in June 2007, the EU’s REACH regulation is a force for good. We all like to bemoan the added burden placed on us by new rules, but it’s important to say that the directive is a positive development. It has two key, laudable objectives; to protect people and the planet from harmful chemicals, while enhancing competitiveness of the European chemicals industry.

REACH places the burden of proof on companies. To comply with the regulation, companies must identify and manage the risks linked to the substances they manufacture and market in the EU. They have to demonstrate to the European chemicals agency (ECHA) how the substance can be safely used, and they must communicate the risk management measures to the users.

Obviously, the aerospace industry uses many thousands of chemical substances within the manufacturing process. Inevitably, it takes years to assess and catalogue so many chemicals to meet the regulation. This predicament has led to something known as ‘sunset dates’ after which the placing on the market (and the use of a substance) is prohibited unless an authorisation is granted. It’s a stay of execution for certain chemicals.

Where certain substances such as lead chromate and hexa-chromates are concerned, these chemicals have been granted dispensation from REACH due to their unusually good cohesive and protective properties that are central to the aerospace production process.

The problem which emanates from this ruling is most evident in the aftermarket, where vital maintenance and repairs are undertaken for both civil and military aircraft. Often overlooked, this is a major part of the aerospace sector, comprising around 1,300 companies employing close to 60,000 people according to latest government statistics.

Chromate undercoat being applied

More specifically, undercoat paint systems containing hex chromate and lead chromates have been granted a reprieve by the ECHA, due to their anti-corrosion and adhesive qualities. Used widely on wings and fuselages, this omnipresent base coat has been identified as potentially carcinogenic – specifically when cut, drilled or sawn. In many ways, chromates could be described as the ‘asbestos of the aerospace industry’ given their widespread use but potentially fatal effects if inhaled over a long period.

While a sunset date of January 2019 was set for the registration of potentially dangerous chemicals, this class of undercoat – usually a characteristic green or yellow colour – was given special status given its unique properties and the lack of any practical alternatives. While this is not a major issue for most OEMs, it’s a real challenge for the service and maintenance sector which may be unwittingly exposing its technicians to potentially harmful chromate dust.

Dealing with dust

Over the last year I had been privileged enough to visit a dozen businesses involved in the aerospace aftermarket. And while most of these companies were well aware of the potential risks associated with the cutting, sawing or drilling of chromate painted components, their strategies to deal with the dust were not consistent.

We see a lot of businesses assuming that secondary extraction – which filters the air already in circulation – is good enough. However, our experience suggests that on-tool dust extraction using a high-vacuum system is the best-in-class approach. Fitted to the tool in use (i.e. drill or grinder), this solution moves air at between 50-60 metres per second along a transit pipe, taking potentially harmful dust with it.

Ideally, this should be connected to a centralised extraction system, which stores the dust away from the working area in a dedicated room that could be 100 metres away from the shopfloor. In our view this is the gold standard when it comes to dust management.

Our philosophy is to capture and contain the dust before it even reaches the atmosphere. The use of portable units is fraught with issues of poor performance (low suction of just 10mps or less), a high level of dust escape and also high noise levels. Trailing power cables and pipes can also represent a serious trip hazard.

Extraction units may appear to be an obvious solution, however these need to contain HEPA filters on the exit side of the machines to ensure that blow back of hazardous dust does not occur over time. The other issue with this option is the need to constantly monitor the condition of the filters – which need changing regularly.

To properly manage this insidious issue, companies working within the aerospace aftermarket should firstly undertake a risk audit relating to REACH. This can be done internally or carried out using a third-party consultancy. It’s important to assess the potential risk from particulate matter, measuring the volume and type of dust produced.

Once you know how much matter you’re producing and what chemicals are in the dust, you can start to develop a management strategy.

Different businesses will deal with the challenge in different ways – depending on their specific circumstances and processes. But in the end, it’s about meeting your responsibility as an employer. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) announced earlier last year that it was once again cracking down on dust exposure in a number of industrial sectors. The aerospace aftermarket is no doubt on their hitlist. If you have not yet developed a plan to deal with the potentially hazardous impact of chromate dust – now’s the time to act.

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