Imagine the hottest day of a Nebraska summer. Now add ten degrees to the temperature. Now picture yourself wearing full-body personal protective equipment and a respirator, while pushing large metal parts around on carts.
That’s a normal August day in the life of a Kaser powder coating team member.
I think it’s very important for anyone considering a career in powder coating to realize that powder coating is, in fact, manual labor, and that it can be very physically taxing, particularly in the summer months.
Kaser Blasting & Coatings is a batch/booth “job shop”, meaning that we don’t have an automated line – there’s no conveyor belt system moving our parts through the powder coating process for us. We’re the ones transporting parts from the blast booth, to the pretreatment area, to the oven to dry, to the powder booth for coating, back to the oven to cure, and eventually to the packaging area. If it’s a batch of small fixtures, all of this movement is no problem: we hang parts on wheeled carts, and as long as the parts are light, the carts are easy enough to move.
But if we’re powder coating a batch of large parts weighing up to 2000 pounds a piece – particularly if these parts are oddly-shaped, or are unbalanced in any way on the wheeled racks – the process suddenly becomes much more demanding.
Imagine that you’re the pretreatment operator: you’re in the wash bay (which must stay sealed during pretreatment to avoid letting out any moisture), and you’re wearing long rain pants, a rain jacket, rubber boots, a half-face respirator, and gloves. Your skin is fully covered to avoid interaction with the pretreatment chemicals, which aren’t terribly caustic but could cause damage to exposed skin over time. The oven is nearby, so it’s hot, and you’re pretreating a very large part, meaning that the wash bay is growing increasingly humid with every gallon of water you use.
Now imagine that you’re spraying powder coating. The parts are already hung, so there isn’t much heavy lifting, but your booth is near the oven, there’s no water anywhere nearby to cool you off (like there would be in the wash bay), and you’re wearing a full Tyvek suit with a hood and a full-faced respirator. The heat is intense, and the awkward angles at which you sometimes have to hold the powder coating gun can cause muscle soreness.
If you’re the team member responsible for moving parts into and out of the oven, you’re literally walking into the oven – which has cooled down quite a bit since being at a peak temperature of 400 degrees F, but is still much warmer than the shop floor – wearing long, heat-resistant gloves, and pushing hot, heavy metal carts around.
It’s no surprise, then, that I like to hire new powder coating team members in early spring. It’s best to give them plenty of time to get acclimated, not only to the physical challenges of moving large parts around, but also to the gradually-increasing summer heat. The candidates most likely to excel in these conditions are the people who played sports in high school, enjoy lifting weights, and lead active lives. A certain amount of physical conditioning helps to avoid injury and burnout.
My advice to anyone who manages a powder coating operation: provide a cool place for team members to take breaks, have plenty of bottled water and sports drinks available at all times, and talk to your team about the dangers of heat. Air conditioning the entire shop floor is not feasible, but keeping the break room at 68 degrees F is a must. When summer rolls around, most of our safety meetings are about best practices for staying healthy in the heat. Hydration is easy to overlook when the shop is busy, so in addition to scheduling time in the air-conditioned break room, we also schedule water intake: one bottle of water per person every hour.
Air movement on the shop floor is also key. Kaser has 14 drum fans running at any given time during the summer months. Another effective (but more costly) way to help control the heat is to utilize roof and wall vents – properly located, vents create natural convection, allowing the hottest air to rise and exit the building.
Whether you are a powder coating professional, aspire to be a powder coating professional, know a powder coating professional, or manage a powder coating team, spread the word: summer heat is out to get you.