The dirt on shop towels: Study questions their safety

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

02/23/2012


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 www.TheDirtOnShopTowels.com.



The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America. View the 2015 Top Plant.
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
Each year, a panel of Control Engineering and Plant Engineering editors and industry expert judges select the System Integrator of the Year Award winners in three categories.
A new approach to the Skills Gap; Community colleges may hold the key for manufacturing; 2017 Engineering Leaders Under 40
Doubling down on digital manufacturing; Data driving predictive maintenance; Electric motors and generators; Rewarding operational improvement
2017 Lubrication Guide; Software tools; Microgrids and energy strategies; Use robots effectively
The cloud, mobility, and remote operations; SCADA and contextual mobility; Custom UPS empowering a secure pipeline
Infrastructure for natural gas expansion; Artificial lift methods; Disruptive technology and fugitive gas emissions
Mobility as the means to offshore innovation; Preventing another Deepwater Horizon; ROVs as subsea robots; SCADA and the radio spectrum
Power system design for high-performance buildings; mitigating arc flash hazards
Research team developing Tesla coil designs; Implementing wireless process sensing
Commissioning electrical systems; Designing emergency and standby generator systems; Paralleling switchgear generator systems

Annual Salary Survey

Before the calendar turned, 2016 already had the makings of a pivotal year for manufacturing, and for the world.

There were the big events for the year, including the United States as Partner Country at Hannover Messe in April and the 2016 International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago in September. There's also the matter of the U.S. presidential elections in November, which promise to shape policy in manufacturing for years to come.

But the year started with global economic turmoil, as a slowdown in Chinese manufacturing triggered a worldwide stock hiccup that sent values plummeting. The continued plunge in world oil prices has resulted in a slowdown in exploration and, by extension, the manufacture of exploration equipment.

Read more: 2015 Salary Survey

Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.
The maintenance journey has been a long, slow trek for most manufacturers and has gone from preventive maintenance to predictive maintenance.
Featured articles highlight technologies that enable the Industrial Internet of Things, IIoT-related products and strategies to get data more easily to the user.
This digital report will explore several aspects of how IIoT will transform manufacturing in the coming years.
Maintenance Manager; California Oils Corp.
Associate, Electrical Engineering; Wood Harbinger
Control Systems Engineer; Robert Bosch Corp.
This course focuses on climate analysis, appropriateness of cooling system selection, and combining cooling systems.
This course will help identify and reveal electrical hazards and identify the solutions to implementing and maintaining a safe work environment.
This course explains how maintaining power and communication systems through emergency power-generation systems is critical.
click me