An ER Nurse's Take on Screen Printing
Having owned my own screen printing shop, my screen printing journey started way before I arrived at Ryonet. Now I get to help shops automate their processes and take their production to the next level. Along the way I had the great fortune and drive to go to nursing school and fall in love with the Emergency Department as a Registered Nurse in the great state of Louisiana. Even to this day, I still work in our ER’s here in my hometown, and carry a bunch of probably unnecessary equipment and supplies on me when I travel everywhere. Hey, luck favors the prepared, right?
As an RN, I’ve gotten to see some really gnarly stuff, so health related things are always on my mind. Things like what we breath in and what comes in contact with our skin, just to name a few. Those things in particular have long caused me to ponder what the long term effects of the screen printing process is on our bodies.
Researching some of the ingredients in common shop chemicals including screen opener and spray tack, will lead you down a rabbit hole filled with scientific words and pathophysiology that might make your head spin.
Think about it though; Every day, you or your team is exposed to ink degraders and washes, plastisol and curing ink fumes, acidic emulsion removers and haze removers, and who knows what else. Now, this article and its accompanying video isn’t here to scare you. Rather, my goal is empower printers with knowledge and help create conversation around the topic of improved screen printing health.
Our respiratory system is a complex one, with lots of safeguards to keep us from getting sick. We breath in air through our nostrils and can also take in air orally. Nasally, air is moisturized and cleaned as it passes through our sinuses down into our lungs. Oral breathing, is a bit more of a straight shot without the added benefits our nose and what's behind those two nasal holes. When we feel irritants in our lungs or upper airway, we cough to help clear all that out. When we get a respiratory infection, our lungs do all kinds of amazing things to keep that stuff moving out as our other systems kick in to help.
But, what happens as we breath in chemical fumes and whatnot from the printing process?
Initially, there is usually coughing and breath holding, but as we go through sensory accommodation, becoming accustomed to the chemicals we are often around, we suppress those reflexes, and those chemicals can find their way down down down into our systems. Our blood gets pumped through our heart and into our lungs anywhere from 60-100 times a minute, and just as that blood picks up oxygen in the lungs before getting the final squeeze to push it throughout your body. Just like oxygen, it can also pick up contaminants like the lab generated gases, oils, and other esters contained in screen opener. Spray tack is another one I like to point out here, a relic from the past for sure. Many shops have really seen the benefit of moving to liquid adhesives on press. But those who haven’t are still playing with a messy, funky, and expensive alternative. Breathing in glue...sounds sticky to me, all in your nostrils or even right in your lungs.
Externally, our skin protects us from contaminants in general, but absorption is a real thing. Not to mention when we have skin that isn’t intact with cuts or scrapes, we are more exposed to the effects of some of our everyday chemicals, like those used in the washout process of screens. I’ve seen some pretty scary haze remover burns, on the forearms of people washing out frames for reuse. Generally lumped into the same category as our skin, mucous membranes get exposure to irritants as well, like our nostrils and even more frightening, our eyes. Can you imagine, or maybe you’ve been there to know, the discomfort of a splash-back of low-pH acidic emulsion remover? Long term, as our skin gets exposed to chemicals over and over, we go through defatting or oil reduction in the exposed areas, as well as permanent changes due to corrosion of the cells at the site. So what do you do? Stop producing? Live in fear? Go hide in your office and pretend you didn’t read this article? Too late guys.
The goal, as the owner of a manufacturing facility aka printshop, is that you provide a safe workplace for you and your team to operate your money making process.
Long after each dollar is made off of your press, you have to rest at night knowing you made that dollar honest, and with as little harm to the environment and your team as possible. That’s what responsible manufacturing and responsible ownership looks like. It doesn’t matter if it’s just you in a garage with a giant roll up door, or a 15 press shop running 10’s of thousands of prints a day. We have to be active and diligent, and take ownership of providing a happy and healthy workplace.
To specifically target some of the things mentioned earlier in this article, let’s talk about alternatives, and get tactical about what you can do:
-Spray Tack: Water based liquid adhesive is a VERY viable alternative to spray adhesives. Arriving in liquid form, usually with some sort of squirt top, this low viscosity glue remains in solution rather than being sprayed. This product gets carded, or spread onto the pallet surface, and then given a touch of heat to really activate its stickiness. That process may feel like it takes longer initially, though in the long run, it is indeed faster than re-spraying the boards every few shirts. Liquid adhesive lasts longer, sticks better, and is less expensive. Not to mention, stays far far away from your lungs and that delicate respiratory system I mentioned earlier. Win-Win-Win
-Spray Opener: I get it guys and gals, spray opener is FAST. Color changes, stubborn ink clumps, and that weird yellow pigment that gets into your fingernail bed when mixing pantone 375c. Nothing gets those problems gone faster. But, other things work quite well too. Baby wipes, nail brushes with pumice soap and patience for your hands and skin, are way better than just taking a little ‘hit’ of opener to remedy the problem. And for your screens and squeegee cleanup, canned opener is not only a toxic solution, it’s just expensive. Ink degraders do as effective of a job, and their liquid nature allows them to be used in basic pump-to-cloth systems, ketchup style squirt bottles, recirculating systems, and who knows what else. But the chemicals are effective, without being pressurized.
-Chemical Irritation from haze removers, emulsion removers, etc: We can always try to choose milder solutions and chemicals, or make sure that we match up our process driven chemical selections very tightly. For instance, don’t use water based ink compatible emulsions when you are an all plastisol shop. You are likely working way harder to reclaim the stencil, as that emulsion is designed to be a little tougher.. You’re probably paying more too. Also, make SUPER sure you are exposed to a solid 7 or 8 on an exposure calculator, as properly linked/exposed emulsion doesn’t take on chemicals into their surface. The absorption into the emulsion face of washes and degraders, can cause the emulsion to be harder to reclaim, when underexposed, requiring more chemistry needed, meaning more exposure to you or your team. Also, try to use chemistry that carries more eco friendly makeup when you can. Labels such as “Industrial” or something extreme like “Ink Buster 3000”, probably isn’t going to be super friendly. Products sold with a green leaf icon or with the word “eco” as part of the name, doesn’t mean it would be the safest either. You have to really dig into the product, and the manufacturer, to see just what their ingredients and stance on environmentally friendly chemistry really means. Don’t believe the hype and label, find out for sure. Your health depends on this diligence.
-Respiratory precautions: Educate your team on the irritative nature of your chemicals, at least. On nice days, open up the doors and windows in your shop. These moves are free for the most part, and make a big difference. With employees who are constantly exposed to chemicals, ie reclaim staff, consider more frequent breaks even, and encourage them to take in some sun and fresh air. Try your best to install overhead exhaust or air return over your washout booths and ink cleaning stations. Removing any fumes and bad air from the workspace, will help ensure that your processes can be as safe as possible.
Lastly, create a culture of safety in your factory.
Just do it: get those goggles, hearing protection, disposable mouth/nasal masks, and forearm length disposable nitrile gloves. It’s an investment in the long term, as healthier employees call out less, and these safety items really help maintain health-both short and long term. It also shows your team you care. Get all the sizes your team needs, and have them around in lots of places. Actually encourage their use. Reward safe behavior. Have on site, the ability to wash out eyes and skin that have been exposed to something, and bandage small wounds as they come. Empower your team to make suggestions of new products they have heard about or seen. Who knows, maybe you didn’t get the memo that there’s a better product out there.
What are some ways you are working to make your shop a better place for you and your team? How are you ensuring that you and your team maintain that culture of safety I mentioned earlier? Please comment below, and let’s keep this discussion going. Thanks for reading.