The dirt on shop towels: Study questions their safety

Laundered towels still have unsafe materials, but little action is taken


In a survey released today by Kimberly-Clark Professional, nearly four in five manufacturing workers agreed that shop towels should be banned if they are not 100%-free of hazardous materials after laundering.

The survey exclusively targets production floor employees, and is representative of the millions of U.S. manufacturing workers who use shop towels every day, in industries such as automotive, aviation, printing, food and beverage processing, as well as metals and equipment manufacturing. Harris Interactive conducted the survey online on Kimberly-Clark Professional’s behalf from November 8 to 22, 2011, and it reflects responses from 263 U.S. manufacturing workers who spend at least 50% of their time on the production floor.

The results show that once the potential contamination risks of laundered shop towels are known, workers have near-universal agreement on the need to seriously address the issue. However, worker knowledge is limited, with only 44% of workers citing awareness of an exposure risk after shop towels are laundered.

“This survey demonstrates an urgent need to further educate manufacturing workers about shop towel safety issues,” said Kim MacDougall, research scientist at Kimberly-Clark Professional.

“Workers care deeply about their safety, and overwhelmingly express that shop towels delivered as clean should be free of any residual contaminants. Once fully informed of the safety issues surrounding shop towel contamination, workers will demand that these unnecessary risks be addressed in their workplace.”

In a 2011 study conducted by Gradient, an environmental and risk science consulting firm, which was sponsored by Kimberly-Clark Professional, toxic heavy metal residues were found on 100% of the laundered shop towels that were tested. Shop towels are routinely used in manufacturing to wipe machines, parts and equipment, then washed by industrial launderers for re-use at multiple facilities. Residues retained on shop towels after laundering could pose a long-term health risk to workers who handle the towels daily.

In the Harris Interactive survey, if metals retained on laundered shop towels could result in workplace exposures exceeding toxicity exposure guidelines, workers would take the following actions:

  • 93% would take greater safety precautions.
  • 87% would ask for a safer alternative.
  • 86% would raise the issue with a safety manager, employer or union.

Even when workers indicate awareness of laundered shop towel risks, there is a gap between that knowledge and their behavior. This reflects confusion among workers, and the need for employers and safety managers to continue deepening their staff’s understanding of laundered shop towel safety risks.

For example, awareness that shop towels can retain heavy metals post-laundering does not lead to less skin contact or more hand-washing. In fact, 69% of workers do not clean their hands after every shop towel use.

Other unsafe practices indicating potential worker confusion include:

  • Bringing Shop Towels Home: Forty-five percent of workers are aware that shop towels brought home from a facility could lead to other family members being exposed to heavy metals, but this group does not take shop towels home less frequently. Among all workers, over a third (36%) acknowledge bringing home at least one shop towel per week, and more than half (54%) say their typical coworker does so too.
  • Direct Skin Contact with Shop Towels: Although nearly half (49%) say they are very or extremely careful after using a shop towel, only 17% of workers say they never wipe shop towels on exposed skin, while 26% of workers say they do so six or more times daily.
  • Shop Towels Used for Personal Hygiene and First Aid: Nearly a fifth (18%) of manufacturing workers report shop towel use for personal hygiene and first aid, with the most alarming examples including use as toilet paper or to stop bleeding/wipe up blood.

Workers do not indicate a clear understanding of how to address the problem, so they are looking to their organization’s leadership for effective solutions.

According to the survey, half of shop towel users cite working with them simply because they are what is provided on the facility’s shop floor. As a result, 71% see the primary responsibility for keeping them informed on shop towel safety issues as the duty of their employers. Additionally, more than four in five workers feel unions should do more to keep them informed.

For more information on the survey and safety issues associated with laundered shop towels, please visit

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