EHS Spotlight: Reducing Rubber Recycling Risks

Sep 2, 2020, 16:37 PM
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July/August 2020

By Megan Quinn

Fire, heavy lifting, and equipment maintenance top the list of tire recyclers’ safety con-cerns. Additional equipment, scheduling, training, and housekeeping are some of the strategies they use to minimize the hazards. 

Reducing Rubber Recycling RisksDaily safety messages take many forms at Liberty Tire Recycling (Pittsburgh). Each morning, every employee at the company’s 51 locations gets a text from the CEO with a short safety reminder. They also get an e-mail from Barry Mathis, senior vice president of human resources, which touches on hot topics like lock-out/tag-out, drinking plenty of water, and staying alert around heavy equipment. Later in the day, workers will also pause for a “take five” safety talk developed by Safety Director Mike Herbert. Liberty’s leadership team starts every conference call with the same core safety message, Mathis says: “We can’t have a fire, and we can’t have an employee injured.”

Every recycling company tailors its safety protocols to fit the materials it processes, the equipment it uses, and the workers who get the job done each day. Tire recycling comes with its own set of hazards that can keep many safety professionals awake at night if not properly managed. At the top of the list is fire: Sparks from equipment can start fires that put workers and the facility in danger, while heat from stored shreds or crumbs of rubber can build up over time. Tire recyclers also must protect workers from lifting and repetitive-motion injuries they could get by moving heavy, bulky tires. And improper lock-out/tag-out procedures pose major risks for workers who perform maintenance on the facility’s tire shredders and grinders, just as they do for any other recycler that operates heavy equipment.

Tire recyclers say a combination of additional equipment, regular training, proper housekeeping, and advice from outside safety experts can reduce their safety risks and create a stronger safety culture. “This is a tough job,” says Gary Champlin, general manager of Champlin Tire Recycling (Concordia, Kan.) and ISRI’s new chair. “We have to make it as safe as possible.”

Figuring out fire risks

Fire is one of tire recyclers’ top safety concerns, these companies say. Max Daughtrey, president of Four D Corp. (Duncan, Okla.), knows firsthand how a spark can turn into a major fire. When Four D had a fire in 2000, the blaze destroyed the whole facility. The problem started when a spark from tire processing equipment entered the baghouse, which collects the tire fiber. The baghouse caught fire, igniting some rubber underneath it. When firefighters arrived, water from the high-pressure hoses forced the burning rubber through a door into the firm’s fiber separation system. Once the flames hit the fiber, “it was all over,” Daughtrey says. The fire caused more than $2.5 million in damage. Though that fire was devastating, Daughtrey says it’s a worst-case scenario. Tire recyclers can minimize their fire risk with a combination of good fire suppression systems and good housekeeping, he says. 

Recyclers may need to apply different fire suppression strategies to each section of their facility, says Charlie Astafan, general manager at CM Shredders (Sarasota, Fla.). Primary tire shredders operate at slow speeds, which don’t usually generate as many sparks or as much heat during processing as equipment such as grinders or granulators, he says. Those machines typically have greater fire risk, he says, because they operate faster to reduce tire shreds to smaller chips. During this process, most of the steel wire inside the tires gets liberated from the rubber. When the steel makes contact with the grinder’s blades, it creates sparks that can ignite a fire. 

Liberty installs aftermarket fire suppression systems on some of its processing equipment, such as its wire liberation equipment, to avoid this problem. A common type some recyclers use is a spark detection and suppression system that will flush equipment automatically with water when there’s a spark. Some grinders and granulators come with their own internal spark suppression systems that have water lines inside, along with a heat and spark detection system that can trigger a deluge of water at the onset of a fire, Astafan says. Talk to your equipment manufacturer, or research after-market companies that can retrofit your equipment based on your level of fire risk. “These devices can be simple or elaborate. Some will shut down equipment; some can flood the machine with water, foam, or both,” he says.

Four D moves material from the shredders to the grinders using an air system with large fans, and it has a tube system that carries the tire fiber to a separate area. Because air, fiber, and a spark can create conditions that could allow a potential fire to spread quickly, Four D uses a Flamex-brand system for “any tube in the plant that is carrying fiber material,” Daughtrey says. That company makes infrared detection and suppression systems with features such flame detectors meant for the processor’s output. 

Dust collection systems—which collect not just dust, but fine rubber powder and tiny bits of tire fiber—can be another source of fire risk, Astafan says, and they need their own fire suppression system. “If there’s a spark, oxygen and fine rubber create something almost like gunpowder,” he says. That combustibility “makes the difference between a fire and an explosion.” Check the state and local laws in your area to determine whether your facility must comply with specific fire suppression equipment regulations, Astafan adds. 

Housekeeping and storage strategies

Regular housekeeping can reduce the risk of fires and explosions, Astafan says. Many facilities schedule a regular cleaning procedure to dust the rafters, floors, and any other hard-to-reach corner that could be hiding tiny particles of dust and rubber. These tiny particles of rubber can fall into cracks in equipment control panels, where sparks in starters could cause a fire, he says. Good housekeeping and storage habits can also reduce slips, trips, and falls—and even reduce the unpleasant and unhygienic possibility of “critters” like insects and rodents taking up residence in stacks of tires or piles of shredded tires, adds Tony Smith, ISRI’s director of safety outreach. 
In your quest to stay tidy, avoid choosing a storage method for processed tires that could introduce new fire hazards, Daughtrey says. 

Rubber heats up during processing, and that heat can continue to build if it’s improperly stored. Daughtrey still re-members when his company boxed up a few Gaylords of 3/4-inch chips right out of the shredder, then it sealed the boxes with tape. The material, which was already warm from processing, kept getting hotter in the sealed 
container. It caught fire inside a delivery truck hours later. 

Crumb rubber is especially good at rapidly heating inside sealed containers, Astafan says. The granulated rubber “has an insulating property to it, so if it’s bagged, it can continue to increase in temperature, igniting in a storage area four to five hours after a shift has closed.” Some tire processors avoid this situation by storing the material in breathable or open-top containers and monitoring their facilities with heat-sensing cameras, he says. 

However you store your material, check your state and local laws and regulations, which may dictate how much material you can store and how you can store it, Astafan says.

Lifting less

Tires are heavy and bulky, and workers who repeatedly handle them throughout the day are prone to repetitive motion injuries. Training employees on safe lifting strategies is important, but it’s also worth it to keep an eye on workers throughout the shift, Herbert suggests. Managers at Liberty lead a group stretching exercise before each shift. “It’s a way to limber up, but it’s also a way to put eyes on people to see if someone seems to be tired or is having a tough time,” he says. And it’s a chance to check in and remind them of the correct way to handle the tires for minimum impact on the body. 

Many tire recycling facilities limit the amount of time workers can spend lifting, carrying, or handling whole tires. Liberty workers typically change tasks after handling 100 tires, while Four D Corp. schedules two to three crews to take turns being in charge of loading and unloading truckloads. “Most tires weigh between 25 and 30 pounds. That’s not a big lift on its own, but we go through 13,000 tires a day, which takes a toll,” Daughtrey says. Champlin, Four D, and Liberty say they also require workers to roll the tires whenever possible instead of lifting them. Consider investing in telescoping conveyors, which make unloading easier, Herbert says. If lifting is unavoidable, keep the weight down, he adds: two people should handle anything over 50 pounds.
Repetitive tasks like loading and unloading can cause fatigue, but also boredom, which might cause workers to lose focus and cause an accident from inattention, Daughtrey says. Take a look at workers’ schedules to see if they can rotate through additional jobs throughout the day, such as maintenance, tire unloading, and machine operation. “If you see an opportunity where you can cross-train someone on something new, that helps you and them” by keeping workers alert and helping to build skills while preventing repetitive motion injuries and fatigue, he says. 

Reducing or eliminating “touch time”—the amount of time workers spend lifting or handling tires—is another way to prevent repetitive motion and back injuries, Champlin says. “Anytime you do that physical labor day to day, your worker’s comp exposure is really high, even if [workers] wear back belts” or other PPE, he says. 

Over the past 12 years, Champlin Tire has retrofitted its semi tractor trailers with mounted booms and grapples. In-stead of manually loading a tire, the worker gets in the boom seat and uses the grapple to load the tires. When the truck arrives back at Champlin Tire, workers unload it using skid-steer loaders with grapples. “By the time we pick up a tire and process it, we’ve never physically touched it. That has really brought our safety risk way down,” Champlin says.

The retrofits are expensive, but that investment has paid off not just by reducing injuries, but also by improving employee hiring and retention rates, he says. Tire recycling can be an intensely physical job on top of being dusty and dirty, he notes. “If we weren’t able to take the physical labor out of the equation, we wouldn’t be able to hire.” 

Liberty Tire, which has acquired several smaller tire processors in the last few years, has different layouts and equipment at each of its 51 facilities. When it comes time to upgrade equipment or processes, “we have ergonomics in mind when we plan those capital expenditures,” Herbert says. Some lower-cost solutions include raising inspection tables to waist level so workers don’t have to bend uncomfortably when checking tires. Longer term, “we’re trying to design processes so tires aren’t handled more than once when they enter the facility,” he says.

When Four D redesigned its facility in 2000, it lined up equipment and processes so workers only touch the tires if they are unloading or inspecting them before they go on the conveyor for processing. “If I could find a robot to automatically unload the tires, I would do it,” Daughtrey says, but human handlers play a critical role in safety and quality control. Robots can’t spot hazards that could harm humans or equipment, such as bolts or pieces of pipe that get stuck in the treads. “Once, during an inspection, someone found a three-inch railroad spike in a tire—that can really screw up the equipment,” he says. Errant metal in the shredder can damage blades or cause sparks, which “is all it can take to start a fire,” he says.

Maintenance risks

Tire recyclers rely on shredders and other big equipment to get their jobs done each day. Though lock-out/tag-out procedures aren’t unique to tire recyclers—they’re a critical safety practice for every scrapyard, Smith says—tire re-cyclers say they pay special attention to lock-out/tag-out training because of the high risk of injury when performing maintenance on tire shredders or tire grinders. 

Lock-out/tag-out violations are frequently among OSHA’s 10 most cited violations and were the fourth-most-cited violation in 2019. Some tire recyclers emphasize the importance of lock-out/tag-out with severe penalties: Liberty, Champlin, and Four D employees who don’t follow lock-out/tag-out procedures can be suspended, sent home for the day, or even fired depending on the situation. “If we find it was a lapse in judgment, [the employee] is sent home for the day without pay,” Daughtrey says. “But if it is a willful incident, he is terminated.” Herbert adds that no one at his company is immune to lock-out/tag-out-related penalties. “We do it to save lives,” he says. “We have removed people with over 10 years of experience. If you’ve been here 30 years or a month, it doesn’t matter.”

Liberty also only provides lock-out/tag-out training to authorized workers who work directly with the equipment, which is meant to reduce the possibility that an unauthorized worker will be injured or killed while working on a shredder. Those with lock-out/tag-out clearance carry their own locks, which they are required to wear on their belt loop as part of their PPE. Each person’s lock has the person’s photo on it, along with a tag, so it’s clear who is working on the equipment when it’s locked out. “If three people are working on the equipment, it’s mandatory to have three locks on it,” he says.

OSHA requires facilities to review their lock-out/tag-out procedures with employees at least once a year. After re-ceiving a fine for being less than a month out of date on its review, Four D decided to step up its training by hiring a safety engineer, who conducts safety training once a month on lock-out/tag-out procedures and “a whole library” of other safety considerations, including fire safety, ergonomics, and bloodborne pathogens, Daughtrey says. Though OSHA requires annual training on many safety topics, consider scheduling short, recurring refresher trainings on the most important ones as an effective way to build good habits, he says. Toolbox talks are a common way to remind workers about lock-out/tag-out procedures, underscore safe lifting habits, or bring up concerns about housekeeping issues, Herbert adds. 

The buddy system 

In addition to providing regular training, Daughtrey recommends using the buddy system to keep workers safe and accountable. Four D’s facility is on 45 acres, and daily operations are both loud and hectic. One day, a worker who clocked in during the morning went missing. His work partner, fearing that he was injured in an equipment accident or had fallen ill somewhere in a remote part of the plant, reported the absence. The entire facility shut down operations until he was found safe. (The worker wasn’t feeling well and had taken a nap in the yard.) “It hurt productivity that day, but his life is more important than anything,” Daughtrey says. 

Using the buddy system is a common practice at many recycling facilities, particularly tire recycling yards, Astafan says. CM Shredders does not recommend operating its shredders solo, he says. “Any facility that runs any tire recycling equipment should always [do so] with teams of at least two. That way, if something were to happen, they’d be in close proximity to get help,” he says.

The buddy system also holds workers accountable and can empower them to speak up when they see something unsafe happening at the plant, Herbert says. When onboarding new employees and retraining existing employees, “make it clear that everyone has stop-work authority, meaning anyone can stop operations at any time if there’s an issue,” he says. 

An outside perspective

Front-line workers can provide valuable feedback about ways to improve your facility’s safety, but it can be just as valuable to invite an outside source to look at your tire recycling facility with fresh eyes, says Kenneth Kunze, a retired firefighter and the founder of IC Fire Prevention (Fort Wayne, Ind.). His consulting firm helps recyclers prevent fires at their facilities by identifying risks and proposing improvements. “I know [recyclers] might get concerned when an outsider comes out to your facility, but you get to make the improvement list, not us,” he says. “You’ll have understanding of your risks, and that leads the way to a safer workplace,” he said during a June presentation to the ISRI Safety and Envi-ronmental Council.

 Kunze also recommends building good relationships with your local fire department by inviting them to your facility, showing them your operations, and asking for feedback. Liberty and Champlin Tire both regularly do so. “We make an event of it,” Herbert says. “We buy pizza and hot dogs for the crew, let them walk the facility, let them give us advice.” Daughtrey says he gave his local fire department a set of plans to the new plant when Four D rebuilt its facility after its fire. Instead of a fully enclosed facility, Four D is enclosed only on three sides, making it easier for the fire department to access the facility in the event of a future fire, he says. The fire department tours the plant once a year to look for obstacles or problems. “That’s the best fire insurance you can get,” he says.

Recyclers can always improve their safety protocols, and the only way to do that is to listen to feedback from em-ployees and other experts, Herbert says. “We don’t want to miss anything or pretend we know everything.”

Megan Quinn is senior reporter/writer at Scrap.

Tire recycling facilities can reduce equipment or fire hazards with consistent housekeeping and training.


  • 2020
  • Jul_Aug

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