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The Danger of Occupational Injuries in the Apparel Industry

Working Conditions Matter

Creating apparel and footwear often requires workers to remain at their workstations for long periods of time doing repetitive types of work. Whether clothes are manufactured via an assembly line or by a single seamstress working at her sewing station, the workers are likely to be in one position for much of their work day.

These working conditions can result in musculoskeletal disorders if close attention is not paid to the ergonomics of the work stations. Employees may experience pain in their necks, backs, wrists, hands or elbows, for example. The pain can be significant and result in lost time from work and lost productivity for the company.

While some may minimize the harm that comes from sitting hunched over at a work station all day long, other companies have taken the risk seriously and made great strides in fixing the problem.

For example, in the late 1980s L.L. Bean determined that 70% of lost manufacturing time was due to work related musculoskeletal disorders. So, they put together an ergonomics team to study their existing workspaces and redesign their work stations. After the recommended changes were implemented, the company saw their lost work due to work related musculoskeletal disorders decrease by 79% and remain low for many years.

Musculoskeletal disorders can be common in the apparel and footwear industry. Therefore, it is important for employers to pay attention to ergonomics. If they do then they can protect their workers from injury and themselves from lost productivity.

Dangerous Dyes

Your favorite shirt may be made from 100% cotton and your favorite sweater may be 100% wool but that does not mean that everything about it is natural. Often, the dyes that are used to create long lasting color on your clothing are made from chemicals that can be dangerous for the workers who use them.

According to the CDC, workers can develop asthma, eczema and severe allergic reactions when they move dye powder from bulk containers into useable containers. There are some easy solutions to this problem that can decrease the amount of dye powder exposure by as much as 70%. Those solutions include better work practices and proper ventilation.

There are some dyes that are particularly dangerous and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has recommended since 1978 that they be treated as carcinogens. The dyes which may cause cancer are derived from benzidine. While most major U.S. dye manufactures no longer make benzidine dyes, they may be imported from other countries.

Dyes that are made from chemicals can be dangerous for textile workers. Therefore, it is recommended that natural dyes be considered, that chemical dyes be delivered in containers that are as small as possible and that proper protective measures be taken to ensure the safety of textile and apparel workers.


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Can Cotton be Dangerous to Clothing Manufacturers?

Many of the articles of clothing enjoyed by Americans are made from cotton. In fact, the 100% cotton label is one that is desired because it usually means that the clothing is soft and will last for a long time.

However, the manufacturing of cotton apparel is risky. It is well documented that the exposure to cotton dust can lead to significant health problems and fatalities. Cotton dust is dangerous because as cotton is handled and manufactured into clothing the dust that is created includes bits of bacteria, fungi, pesticides and other materials that were associated with the cotton plant.

Workers who are repeatedly exposed to cotton dust develop serious lung problems. The earliest symptoms may include trouble breathing, a cough or a tightening of the chest. Repeated exposure may cause a worker to develop byssinosis, also known as brown lung disease.

OSHA requires that the amount of cotton dust in the air be limited. The amount varies according to the particular industry. OSHA recommends several ways in which employers can properly handle dust so as to minimize the negative health effects on workers. Those measures include proper cleaning and ventilation systems and the proper handling and disposing of dust.

Workers who develop byssinosis may have trouble breathing and completing normal everyday activities. They may require breathing treatments and oxygen therapies. At advanced stages, byssinosis sufferers may experience permanently decreased lung function. For these reasons, it is important to prevent this serious occupational injury from occurring to the greatest extent possible.

Hearing Loss in the Apparel and Footwear Industry

The gentle hum of your mother’s sewing machine or the click of your grandmother’s knitting needles may invoke images of a quiet and peaceful environment in which beautiful articles of clothing are created. While that may be true at home, it is not an accurate description of the commercial apparel and footwear industry.

Clothes that are made in commercial factories are made on big and loud machines, often in large factory settings where all of those machines are in close proximity to one another. Together, the machines can create enough noise to result in hearing damage.

Hearing loss can be avoided if both employers and employees are aware of the risk and the steps that need to be taken to protect employees. Those steps include measuring the noise in the work environment and minimizing it as well as providing employees with hearing protection equipment.

OHSA standards regarding hearing loss prevention apply to the apparel and footwear industry, as well as other industries. It is important that employers comply with OSHA standards because hearing loss can be an injury that occurs over a long period of time with few symptoms. An employee may experience no pain or discomfort but still have his or her hearing traumatically effected. It is not until significant and often irreversible damage has been done that an employee is aware that anything is wrong. Therefore, it is important for employers to be proactive and to take all necessary steps to minimize the risk of noise related injuries for apparel and footwear employees.

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We offer this information as a public service to those interested in Workers Compensation news. This newsletter is not legal advice and should only be considered as general information.

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