Composite materials offer tremendous benefits in a range of applications because their light weight and durability can significantly improve product performance. They can also play a role in reducing workplace injuries, according to Fibrelite (Smithfield, NC), a manufacturer of fiber reinforced plastic (FRP) composite access covers. The company designed the first composite manhole cover for gas stations, which has since become the industry standard, more than 30 years ago.
Reports of crushed and amputated fingers and toes along with burns, back injuries and other dangers have given industries ranging from data centers to water treatment plants a reason to seek safer alternatives, writes Fibrelite. According to the 2014/2015 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3,675 injuries were reported in the manufacturing industry alone, 32% of which were back injuries, resulting in a total of 125,880 missed working days. This has caused major problems for decision makers, as legislation continues to restrict acceptable manual weights. Composites are an ideal solution to these problems, writes Fibrelite. "By using lighter materials such as composites, operational injuries are prevented, work sites are made safer and ease of installation and maintenance is made available to utility workers and contractors," says the company.
A case in point are manhole and trench covers, where the risk of injury during installation and removal are traditionally extremely high. Conventional covers typically weigh more than three times a composite cover, making them too heavy to be lifted manually. They require the use of large machinery, compounding the safety risks already in place. These steel covers also lack temperature control, which can make the surface extremely hot. This presents a hazard in public spaces, such as university campuses, shopping centers and municipalities, where heavy foot traffic is commonplace, notes Fibrelite. The company cites a study published by the League of Minnesota Cities, "Muscling Manhole Covers and Other Ergonomic Information," which stated that workers are frequently injured while attempting to remove heavy cast-iron manhole covers. The average cost of these injuries is reported as $100,000 per incident.
Using composite materials eliminates the use of heavy lifting equipment and allows for safer manual handling. Fibrelite's FRP covers have been designed to eliminate risk of burns by not exceeding high temperatures on the surface, regardless of the temperatures below the cover. They also have an anti-slip/skid surface to protect pedestrians. And because they typically are one-third of the weight of metal or concrete covers and are designed with two ergonomic lifting handles, they can be manipulated quickly and easily by two workers without risk of back injury or crushed fingers or toes, says the company.
Cost is often raised as a factor in the adoption of FRP composites, but Fibrelite argues that their corrosion resistance, safety, thermal conductivity and other performance features should be considered when doing a cost analysis. Other industries are following Fibrelite's lead, according to the company, and are incorporating composites into their products as they react to changing regulations, strict health and safety policies and product maintenance costs.