What PPE is Needed for Safe Application of Epoxy Coatings? Plus, Safety Tips for This Popular Industrial Material
Epoxy coating systems are widely used in various industries to protect water pipelines, floorings, concrete, and more. This versatile substance acts as surface protection and protects materials from corrosion. However, it can cause serious health issues if not handled properly.
This article discusses what epoxy is, the main epoxy advantages and disadvantages (including possible health issues such as epoxy sensitization), and what type of personal protective equipment (PPE) is appropriate to wear while handling this material.
What is Epoxy?
Epoxy is a versatile chemical compound that features a range of adhesive and resistance properties (chemical-resistant, heat-resistant). Generally, three types or classes of epoxy exist: pure epoxy resin, polyester resins (e.g., powder coatings used on refrigerators), and epoxy acrylates. Each type has slightly different properties (e.g., epoxy acrylates generally have a faster curing time than pure epoxy resins) and therefore might be preferred over the alternatives in specific situations.
Bisphenol A diglycidyl ether, typically abbreviated as BADGE or DGEBA, is a liquid epoxy resin and accounts for more than 75 percent of epoxy resins used industrially. Epoxy resins also contain a curing agent, typically from a class of compounds called amines (e.g., polyamide and cycloaliphatic amine). Other chemicals present in epoxy materials may include fillers, solvents, and pigments.
Common Uses, Advantages, and Disadvantages of Epoxy Resin
You typically see epoxy resins being used in industries such as construction, industrial tooling, electrical systems, marine, automotive, and aerospace.
An epoxy coating offers excellent UV, heat, and abrasion resistance to the materials to which it is applied. It helps prevent corrosion and as a sealant, it protects surfaces, including pipelines, metal, floors, countertops, and equipment parts. Epoxy dries quickly and when cured, it forms a durable plastic-like material.
Epoxy also acts as a great insulator. It's often found in transistors and electrical circuits to protect parts from moisture, dirt, dust, and other debris that can damage materials over time.
Perhaps the most desirable advantage of epoxy is its powerful, high-performance adhesive capability. It tends to be much more resistant to chemicals and heat than other glues or coatings and is therefore considered a safer, longer-lasting option. Epoxy is commonly used to bond even heavy materials such as concrete, wood, metal, glass, stone, and plastics.
Epoxy provides a shiny clear coating to surfaces. However, pigments and other compounds can be easily added to the resin so that once it's cured, it resembles other materials like granite. This provides a cost-effective solution for builders and homeowners looking to avoid the high price of stone, while still ensuring a high quality, abrasion-resistant surface for countertops and other surfaces.
Epoxy contains chemicals that may be hazardous to human health. For example, exposure via inhalation or direct contact, especially extended periods, can lead to acute issues such as:
- Skin irritation (contact dermatitis)
- Allergic skin reactions (allergic dermatitis)
- Eye irritation
- Asthma-like symptoms and breathing problems due to irritation of the respiratory tract (e.g., nose, throat, and lungs)
For pregnant women, exposure to certain compounds in epoxy may increase the risk of fertility issues, miscarriage, birth defects, and stillbirth, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In men, certain solvents commonly added to epoxy resins (though not the epoxy resin itself) may reduce sperm count.
Certain older forms of epoxy resin containing a compound called epichlorohydrin have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, suggesting that it may be cancer-causing in humans, as well. However, newer forms of epoxy appear to be less likely to pose this risk, given the lower amounts of epichlorohydrin they contain.
Applicators and coatings professionals should always refer to the epoxy product's Safety Data Sheet (SDS) to understand each component's symptoms of health effects and safe handling and/or application techniques.
What is epoxy sensitization?
Epoxy sensitization is another potential disadvantage of this popular industrial material. This is the process by which a person's immune system becomes increasingly sensitive or reactive to epoxy resins and chemicals found in them. In essence, epoxy sensitization causes a person to become allergic to the substance.
The result is that even small amounts of exposure in the future may lead to a strong allergic reaction. Signs and symptoms include irritation to the eyes, nose, throat, lungs, and skin, ranging from mild to severe.
Recommended Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for Epoxy Coatings Applicators
There are numerous ways to reduce exposure to hazards and mitigate risk. Here are a few of the most commonly recommended items of PPE for handling epoxy:
- Wear eye protection, such as safety glasses, chemical goggles with side shields, or goggles with a full-face shield.
- Respiratory protection: respirators help prevent inhalation of chemical vapors emitted by epoxy resins; all applicators should undergo respirator fit-testing as outlined by the manufacturer's recommendations and should be in accordance with the OSHA Respirator Standard, 29 CFR 1910.13.
- Gloves: opt for gloves made with materials such as ethylene-vinyl alcohol (EVOH) laminate, butyl rubber, nitrile rubber, or neoprene; cotton and latex are not sufficient, and workers should always use proper hand hygiene techniques when donning or doffing gloves (e.g., wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before and after).
- Chemical-resistant sleeves and coveralls: these are excellent options for protecting the wearer from chemical splash and skin contact; disposable options are often ideal as these reduce the risk of cross-contamination during transport and laundering.
- Aprons: for added protection, chemical resistant-aprons made with butyl rubber or related material may be needed.
- Boots: sturdy boots provide a barrier against accidental splashes; for enhanced protection, many workplaces encourage the use of shoe or boot covers and taping pants inside the boot to reduce the risk of skin exposure.
International Enviroguard offers a variety of chemical-resistant coveralls and aprons, shoe covers, and sleeves that can help prevent exposure or contact with epoxy. If you’re looking for protection when handling epoxy, contact us to find the protection your workers need to work safely and comfortably.
In addition to wearing appropriate PPE for epoxy, coatings applicators should follow best practices to enhance protection and reduce the risk of exposure:
- Remove all jewelry prior to working with epoxy—chemicals can easily collect under rings, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and more.
- Change clothes immediately after working with epoxy; this reduces the risk of epoxy spreading to other areas, such as inside personal vehicles. Consider storing work clothing in sealed containers for added protection during transport. Disposable PPE is a great alternative because it not only protects underlying clothing, but it also prevents the spread of epoxy chemicals after handling.
- If clothing gets soiled with epoxy, remove the contaminated article of clothing immediately.
- Ensure proper ventilation to prevent chemical vapors from building up in the work area; consider using local exhaust systems or dilution ventilation strategies such as open windows and fans. Ensure that fans are drawing air away from the workspace and not re-circulating harmful vapors toward workers.
- Consider disposable bowls and containers for mixing and pouring. This reduces the amount of chemical handling and clean-up for applicators.
- Look for resins and hardeners that allow applicators to mix the ingredients together in their packaging before opening .
- Isolate the epoxy work area and maintain clean areas away from the work area. This allows workers to safely eat or change clothing .
Finally, it's important to have contingency plans in place in the event that accidental exposure does occur. Even with appropriate ventilation and PPE strategies, accidents can and do happen. In these cases, follow all relevant workplace and SDS policies and procedures. Procedures may include:
- For accidental inhalation: Bring the individual to a place where he or she can get fresh air. Have them rest in a comfortable position and ensure they stay warm. Maintain an open airway and loosen any tight clothing, e.g., collars, ties, and belts.
- For accidental ingestion: Rinse the mouth out with water. Remove dentures. You can provide a few small glasses of water or milk, but stop if the individual feels sick. Vomiting could be dangerous and should not be induced unless directed by a medical professional.
- For accidental skin exposure: Remove the substance from the skin immediately with soap and water or an approved skin cleaning agent.
If the individual vomits, position them to ensure that vomit does not accidentally enter the lungs. As with accidental inhalation, the individual should be brought to a place where he or she can get fresh air. Have them rest in a comfortable position and ensure they stay warm and can breathe easily.
Workers should be encouraged to seek medical attention for all accidental exposures, especially if symptoms are severe or persist.
Epoxy is a popular chemical compound used in a variety of settings, thanks to its powerful properties as an adhesive, sealant, UV-resistant, and scratch-resistant material. Often used as a protective floor coating, epoxy can be found on industrial floors, concrete, countertops, pipelines, equipment parts, and more. All three types of epoxy—pure epoxy resin, polyester resins, and epoxy acrylates—may contain additional chemicals, including curing agents, fillers, dyes, or pigments, depending on the use and setting.
Even though epoxy offers numerous advantages from a construction and industrial standpoint, it's not without its risks. Research suggests that epoxy contains chemicals that may increase the risk of long-term health problems, including infertility issues in both men and women.
For these reasons, it's imperative for any person handling epoxy to be familiar with important safety strategies, including, but not limited to, appropriate ventilation techniques and PPE use. When working with epoxy in a liquid form, International Enviroguard recommends our ChemSplash® 1 product line which includes chemical-splash coveralls, aprons, and sleeves.