Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing has rapidly gained traction in the manufacturing industry. This innovative technology allows producers to create products using a combination of inexpensive materials and highly accessible equipment. While the popularity of 3D printing has grown, many 3D printing health hazards are just starting to gain recognition. For the protection of all workers involved in 3D printing, it is critical that organizations get familiar with the unique health hazards involved and how to properly combat those risks with the use of proper practices and PPE.

A Closer Look at 3D Printing Processes

The 3D printer is an advanced piece of equipment that can utilize user inputs on a computer and filaments or printing materials to create dimensional objects. Essentially, the printer stacks multiple layers of a raw material until the three-dimensional shape has been created.

The majority of 3D printers use what is referred to as feedstock, which is a plasticized filament. The threaded filament gets fed through a heating element where it is liquefied, and then the fluid plastic is released through a controlled nozzle to create an object. Numerous types of thermoplastics may be used as feedstock, including Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), nylon, and Polylactic Acid (PLA). However, some 3D printers also rely on ultraviolet light to cure a piece, lasers for shaping a piece, and even metal powders to create a piece.

Industries That Utilize 3D Printing 

One of the biggest draws of 3D printing is the process affords the ability for product engineers to quickly and inexpensively create parts and products in-house. Therefore, initially, 3D printers were primarily put to use in engineering processes. Engineers could use a 3D printer to build a prototype from the ground up with little cost involved, even with multiple efforts. However, this tech-based form of printing has now grown to be a common component in everyday manufacturing and production processes. Some companies now use numerous 3D printers in their operations on a daily basis. 

You don't have to look far to find 3D printing technology in action. To date, 3D printers have made their way into numerous settings, including medical laboratories, automotive parts manufacturers, electronics manufacturers, and even the aerospace industry.

The ways in which these industries rely on 3D printing can vary drastically from one to the next. For example, some medical practices are using 3D printers to create custom, built-to-fit prosthetics for patients. Likewise, some automotive parts manufacturers use 3D printers to create plastic parts for automobiles. The upcoming McLaren is actually being produced with 3D printed parts. A construction technology company in California is even using 3D printing to create an entire neighborhood of houses. 

The Potential Hazards of 3D Printing

In short, 3D printing hazards can include breathing in harmful chemicals or compounds, skin exposed to harmful chemicals or solvents, and the risk of fire and explosion. Keep in mind that some printers operate at extremely high temperatures, which could also mean the user is at risk of getting burned.

Nevertheless, the hazards associated with 3D printing can vary depending on precisely what type of equipment, materials, and setup are being used. For instance, some printers utilized fine powders that can cause skin or respiratory hazards, while others may utilize ABS filaments that produce hazardous emissions upon heating. Two primary threats come along with exposure to ultrafine particles (UFPs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

UFPs are actually referred to as nanoparticles because they are anywhere from 1 and 100 nanometers in measurement size. These tiny particles are so small, they can be inhaled, travel through the bloodstream, and even make their way into bodily organs. Some UFP exposure has been linked to:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Respiratory infection
  • Lung cancer 
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

VOCs can vaporize even at room temperature. These organic chemicals can then saturate the surrounding environment's air and pose health hazards. Some materials that are commonly used in 3D printing processes, such as nylon, PLA, and ABS produce particularly concerning VOCs like butanol and styrene. Some VOCs are thought to be active carcinogens (cancer-causing agents). However, VOCs can have a litany of other damaging health effects, including:

  • Central nervous system damage
  • Irritation of the throat, nasal passages, and eyes
  • Loss of general coordination
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Skin irritation

Some 3D printers also rely on chemical solutions to dissolve unnecessary support pieces that are printed during the creation of a 3D piece. For example, you may have a printer that requires the use of a caustic soda like sodium hydroxide to create an alkaline bath that dissolves away unnecessary support pieces. These solutions are corrosive, so they can pose risks to the eyes and skin leading to health hazards from blindness to chemical burns.

How Organizations Can Protect Workers from 3D Printing Hazards 

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has rapidly taken initiatives to help organizations protect their workers while using 3D-printing equipment. Primarily, the goal should be to reduce the levels of exposure to 3D printer hazards. Let's look at a few ways to prevent exposure to hazardous compounds and prevent workplace accidents with 3D printers.

Allow only trained professionals to access the 3D printing equipment.

While 3D printing may not be the most complicated task, only trained employees or authorized individuals should have access to the equipment. Allowing those with no training or experience to use the equipment can lead to unnecessary exposure for the untrained person and perhaps more risk for the rest of the workforce.

Place 3D-printing equipment in the proper location. 

The general rule is that 3D printers should be located in isolated enclosures equipped with ventilation to control emissions. If you do not have an isolated enclosure for printing equipment, selecting a room or location that has good air distribution, operable windows, and exhaust to the outdoors is important. 

Opt for 3D-printing materials and equipment with lower emissions.

Printing equipment should be purchased from reputable manufacturers who have created the unit with emissions and safety in mind. A standard has been developed that shows a printer has been designed to reduce emissions. Look for those that meet the ANSI/CAN/UL 2904 Compliance Standard. Likewise, the filaments used should be carefully chosen. As noted above, some filaments create higher emissions, and some create more hazardous emissions. 

Reduce time workers are in proximity to the equipment while printing.

Even though watching a 3D printer in action can be interesting, employees should be encouraged to not spend any more time near the operational 3D printer than necessary. For quality control purposes, some organizations set up alternative cameras or other mechanisms to oversee the printer without an employee having to be nearby.

Be sure employees are properly trained on 3D printer hazards.

Another important facet of protecting employees from the health risks of 3D printing is simply education. Be sure employees know and understand the risks associated with 3D printers. You can find many useful resources to help ensure proper training for employees. For example, the NIOSH offers informational posters on 3D printing with metal powders and 3D printing with filaments.

PPE to Protect Workers While Performing 3D-Printing Tasks

PPE can be the employee's first line of defense against the many hazards they can face when operating or working near 3D printing equipment. Therefore, making sure every employee has the proper PPE, understands the importance of PPE, and knows how to use it properly is critical. Here is a look at three of the most pertinent pieces of PPE every employee should have if they are working with the printing equipment.

Commercial Respirator Masks

General dust masks are not designed to block out the particulate matter that can be released during 3D printing processes. Instead, you will need commercial respirators that have been approved by the NIOSH to protect the wearer against both VOCs and UFPs. 

Neoprene or Nitrile Gloves 

Wearing gloves while working with the feedstock, handling heated pieces, or interacting with solvent chemicals will prevent workers from sustaining injuries on their hands and forearms. All uncured materials coming out of the printer should also be handled with protective gloves.

Splashproof Eye Protection 

To protect the eyes from small particulate matter and potential chemical splashes, employees should always wear protective eyewear while using 3D printing equipment. Be sure to opt for protective goggles over basic safety glasses because these PPE pieces can block out exposure to UFPs and VOCs. 

Coveralls: Flame-Retardant, Chemical-Resistant, or Particulate Protection

As stated previously, 3D printing can involve working with hazardous chemicals, powders (particulates), and even pose the risk of flames or explosions. It’s important to identify which hazards are present throughout your 3D printing process to provide the proper PPE for workers.

When working with ultrafine particles and volatile organic compounds, particulate protection is needed. Our Body Filter 95+® disposable coveralls and garments are designed to filter out 95%-99% of 0.3 micron particles—similar to an N95 respirator. When you need superior particulate protection along with breathable fabric, this product line provides the perfect balance of safety and comfort.

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If corrosive chemical solutions are used in your 3D printing process, chemical-resistant coveralls are necessary to protect against chemical burns and chemical splash. ChemSplash® 1 coveralls, splash aprons, and sleeves protect the body against light chemical splash and less hazardous chemicals. We offer styles with taped seams for added protection against liquid chemicals that can seep through exposed seams. For protection against more aggressive acids, chemicals, and caustics, ChemSplash® 2 coveralls offer the safety you need in more hazardous environments.

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If your 3D printer uses volatile chemical compounds that can ignite and pose a fire or explosion hazard, consider fire-retardant coveralls. Better yet, chemical and fire-retardant coveralls provide protection against both flames and chemicals. PyroGuard FR® coveralls are flame retardant and pass ASTM D6413 vertical flame testing as well as NFPA 2113 requirements for section 5.1.9. Our PyroGuard CRFMTM increases protection levels by safeguarding against a broad range of chemicals as well as being flame retardant.

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A Final Word On Safety and 3D Printing 

By 2026, the 3D printing market is slated to reach 51.77 billion dollars. As more industries take advantage of this innovative form of technological production, more attention must be given to health hazards that can be involved. 

While 3D printing seems relatively safe on the surface level, a deeper look proves that compounds, chemicals, and materials used and emitted during printing can be hazardous. To thwart those 3D printing health hazards, employers can take a number of important steps to protect their employees.

From ensuring proper safety training to getting more familiar with which equipment and materials pose the most risk, there are numerous paths to providing adequate protection. Furthermore, the proper PPE use in 3D printing is one of the most straightforward actions organizations can take to ensure the safety of their employees during 3D printing. 

Browse all 3D printing protective clothing or contact us to find PPE that works best for your application: