Nearly every manager or supervisor in heavy industry has heard that safety is good for business. According to the OSHA document, “Safety and Health Add Value,” effective safety and health programs can mean the difference between organizations operating “in the black and running in the red.”

Eliminating manual material handling has some of the biggest potential to improve a company’s productivity, product quality and overall business competitiveness.

Just as safety and health programs are unique to each operation, the ROI of effective ergonomic interventions also is unique to each organization. There are, however, key areas where potential savings regularly occur when implementing a heavy-duty vacuum.

By replacing the manual removal of steel shot with vacuuming in an effort to reduce ergonomic injuries, the Cianbro facility in Georgetown, Mass., found a way to reduce the potential for employee injuries, unscheduled downtime and wasted manpower in its abrasive blasting operation. The numbers are impressive: The company reduced unscheduled downtime by 80 percent, manpower by more than 50 percent and created a cleaner work environment.

Goal: Eliminate Ergonomic Hazard

Cianbro operates in more than 40 states across a diverse range of markets, from civil and structural projects such as building bridges, to operating fabrication and coating facilities, to working in power plants and paper mills. One hundred percent employee-owned, Cianbro has a total commitment to safety with a long list of safety awards including national recognition as the Healthiest and Safest Company in America by the American College of Occupation & Environmental Medicine.

The Georgetown facility fabricates structural steel beams for bridge and building projects. Many of these projects begin with beams moving, via a conveyor system, through the cabinet-style blast machine where steel beads (called shot) shoot at the beam to remove rust and mill scale in preparation for welding or painting. Once the steel shot hits the beam, it drops down into an auger system that reclaims and feeds the material back into the blast machine for reuse over and over again.

The sandblasting process is taxing on machinery, and when inherent breakdowns occur workers must remove all blast media from the system to perform maintenance. On those occasions, two workers would spend eight hours sweeping and shoveling the steel shot into drums andmanually moved them from the production floor using a drum dolly.

When Cianbro decided to eliminate that ergonomic hazard at its 40,000-square-foot facility, Safety, Health and Environmental Supervisor Kris Chipman researched methods to eliminate manual handling of the heavy material.

Focused on safety, the goal was to alleviate the ergonomic hazards of shoveling heavy media in a tight space and manually moving heavy drums. In her search for solutions, Chipman researched some big shop-type vacs and thought something like that might work.

Needed More than a Shop Vac

After speaking with the VAC-U-MAX rep, who had worked on another Cianbro project to vacuum sludge for a bridge application, it quickly became clear that the commercial shop-type vacs were insufficient to handle the volume of heavy blast media. VAC-U-MAX manufactures industrial vacuum cleaners for manufacturing and municipal facilities as well as government installations and environmental sites and has application expertise in the handling of over 10,000 bulk materials including cast iron, steel, aluminum chips, sludge powders, flakes, granules, pellets and more.

“He did understand exactly what we were looking for and after more discussion we realized this could actually save money on the machine, downtime, production and more,” said Chipman. 

To handle the heavy blast media, the vacuum needed to be designed for high-volume recovery in an industrial setting, and the 15Hp 1020MFS continuous duty vacuum was suggested as an option. Even though the unit is capable of recovering up to five tons per hour and designed to pick up heavy materials including steel shot, foundry sand, metal powders, sludges and other materials similar in nature, Chipman wanted assurances that the vacuum could pick up their particular blast media. 

“This is heavy stuff,” says Chipman. “Each 55-gallon drum weighs approximately 2,000 pounds and from the beginning, we weren’t sure if what we wanted to do was even possible. So we sent VAC-U-MAX a sample of the shot media, they did some testing, and guaranteed it would work for us.”

Although the unit is portable with 14” large rubber tires and a dual swivel castor wheel that makes it easily maneuverable by a single operator, Cianbro mounted its unit to a skid.

“Push-pull is a hazard in our book, and we do all that we can to avoid it,” says Chipman. “So we mounted it to a skid and we move it with equipment. It is very portable for us because we have the equipment on site – fork trucks and loaders – and we can move it around anywhere in our facility that we need it.” (As a result of this customer feedback, VAC-U-MAX now offers the Model 1020 with an optional base that can be lifted using a forklift.)

“The great thing about this vacuum system is that the hoses are long enough that we can leave the collection drums where they can be mechanically moved, instead moving drum dollies manually,” says Chipman.

Reduced Labor, Cleaner Work Environment

Since acquiring the vacuum, the facility has cut the labor required to empty the machine by more than 50 percent. The task of emptying the pit, which used to take two workers eight hours to accomplish, now takes one worker three hours to complete.

“Now we can shut it down in the morning, vacuum it out and have it repaired all in the same day using one person,” says Chipman. “The reduced labor time for maintenance, which is something that can’t be billed, is now redistributed to work hours on a project that is billable.”

Shawn Ramsay, operations manager at the Georgetown facility, says that in addition to the vacuum “reducing the risk of injuries and allowing us to quickly and safely clear the steel shot out from the machine pit to perform maintenance, it also proved to be very helpful in the daily maintenance and cleanliness of the areas around the machine.”

In an environment where the nature of a blasting machine is to, in effect, destroy itself over time, reducing the amount of wear and tear can increase the longevity of that equipment and reduce the amount of breakdowns and unscheduled down time. Because the vacuum makes light work of the heavy blast media, the facility now cleans around the blast cabinet and auger system a couple times a week, reducing abrasion to machine parts. 

Before getting the vacuum, the machine used to break down about once a month, requiring the removal of all the blast media to allow some type of unscheduled maintenance or repair.  

“We’ve only had to clean the entire pit out twice in the last year for unscheduled maintenance, which is an 80 percent reduction in unscheduled downtime and increased production time” since installing the vacuum, says Chipman. “Of course, being the safety person, it is a lot safer having someone there holding a vacuum than it is to be shoveling heavy media into a drum.”

In addition, to using the vacuum for its original task of cleaning steel shot from the blast machine and auger, Ramsay says the facility has expanded the use of the vacuum in other areas, such as cleaning garnet from the floor of another blasting area and also in the paint bay.

“It has allowed us to clean the areas in a much safer and expeditious manner,” he says. 

The facility also uses the vacuum to clean up overspray in its coating operation as well as for general housekeeping on the shop floor. As Chipman points out, the vacuum “is a lot faster and more efficient than just sweeping. And it gets it cleaner.”

“When you look at the [reduced] potential for injury and [can] show hard numbers that this will limit downtime – which has a cost – and also reduce replacement parts and wear and tear while increasing the longevity of the equipment, it makes it easy to put the case together to make the investment,” says Chipman.

About the author: David Kennedy is an expert in vacuum technology with over 25 years of experience designing and engineering vacuum conveying systems and industrial vacuum cleaners. To learn more about VAC-U-MAX vacuum cleaning solutions, call 1-800-VAC-U-MAX (800-822-8629) or 973-759-4600 or e-mail info@vac-u-max.com.