Over the past few years, the spotlight on health issues throughout the world’s supply chains has grown. Much of this focus has lingered on environmental concerns like greenhouse gas emissions, but volatile organic compounds (VOCs) deserve attention, too.
VOCs are naturally occurring chemicals in some solids and liquids that become dangerous as they seep out as a vapor. These toxic compounds are often hard to notice at first, but exposure to them can cause severe health issues over time. If companies hope to keep their workers safe, they must address these chemicals in their supply chains.
How Dangerous Are VOCs?
Exposure to VOCs can cause several significant health issues. Possible short-term symptoms include eye and respiratory system irritation, headaches, dizziness and even memory impairment. Long-term exposure can lead to more serious conditions, such as liver or kidney damage or certain cancers.
One of the most dangerous aspects of VOCs is that they’re not always noticeable until it’s too late. Some produce immediate symptoms in high enough concentrations, but in many cases, health issues slowly build with long but relatively low exposure.
While VOCs occur naturally, they typically appear in much higher concentrations indoors than outdoors. In supply chain facilities, where workers move and work with products containing these chemicals for extended periods, exposure risks can be fairly high. As supply chain demand increases, it could mean increased exposure if companies don’t address the issue.
How Do VOCs Enter the Supply Chain?
Workers may encounter VOCs at several different points throughout the supply chain. Many popular raw materials contain VOCs, so manufacturing employees may work around these fumes during production. Paints and adhesives, in particular, tend to have high levels of potentially toxic chemicals.
VOCs can also enter the supply chain through cleaning processes. Many household cleaners and disinfectants contain VOCs, so as workers clean warehouses, factories or offices, these chemicals can seep into the air or surrounding surfaces. Over time, this accumulation could pose significant health risks.
Packaging is another process that can introduce VOCs to the workplace. Insulation and other packaging materials may contain VOCs that release as employees move them around packing and unpacking shipments. Alternatively, these chemicals could seep into the products they protect, in turn endangering people who handle the end product.
How to Address VOCs in the Supply Chain
Given these risks and the abundance of ways exposure can occur, supply chains must address VOCs. That should include several steps, covering both prevention and mitigation. Here’s a closer look at what companies can do to reduce VOC exposure in their supply chains.
Consider Cleaner Raw Materials
The most effective way to address VOCs is to eliminate them from the beginning. That starts with the manufacturing process. Manufacturers should review their raw materials to see if anything they use contains VOCs. If it does, they should consider cleaner alternatives.
Soft plastics like PVC and polystyrene emit more VOCs than harder materials, so they should become a focus for supply chains. Even if these plastics don’t contain many VOCs initially, they may absorb chemicals leaking from other products like cleaners or packaging. Their soft, porous structure then re-releases these harmful contaminants over time, potentially endangering workers.
Supply chain facilities should also review their cleaning products, as many of these contain VOCs. Swapping these for VOC-free alternatives is a relatively simple, cost-effective way to reduce exposure and contamination throughout the supply chain.
Review Packaging Materials
Next, supply chains must address VOCs in their packaging materials. Packaging accounts for 40% of all plastic production, so this may be where most contamination risks occur. These single-use insulators could contaminate other products or absorb airborne VOCs elsewhere to emit later.
There are two main ways to remove VOCs from packaging materials. Companies can look for insulators that don’t contain any or have relatively low VOCs, or they could look for less absorbent materials. The first will reduce VOC exposure from packaging, while the second will minimize risks of VOCs elsewhere in the supply chain spreading further.
As these risks become increasingly evident, new VOC-free alternatives to conventional packaging materials are becoming more common. Consequently, it’ll become increasingly easier for organizations to remove these contaminants from this part of the supply chain.
Rethink Transportation and Storage
Another important step in addressing supply chain VOCs is reviewing transit and storage processes. With more than 70% of the nation’s goods traveling by truck, shipments spend a lot of time in trucks or warehouses. That presents many opportunities for contamination to occur.
Unlike greenhouse gas emissions, transportation itself isn’t a leading source of VOC exposure. However, these processes can accelerate VOC cross-contamination if organizations aren’t careful. High temperatures and light can accelerate VOC emissions from plastics by speeding up their degradation.
Logistics companies should ensure shipments remain cool and out of direct sunlight during transportation and storage. More efficient shipping processes will also help, as they reduce the time goods spend in potentially volatile packaging.
Some VOCs may be inevitable in supply chain workplaces. Because organizations may not be able to eliminate these contaminants entirely, they should also take steps to mitigate their impact. The most important step in that process is improving indoor ventilation.
VOCs endanger employees when they breathe them in. Consequently, better airflow will protect their health by minimizing their chances of inhaling any airborne contaminants. All indoor workspaces, especially smaller rooms, should have reliable, effective ventilation systems to move airborne VOCs out of the area quickly.
Ensuring sufficient airflow is more important than cleaning the air with chemicals or filters. Studies show that indoor air cleaners are largely ineffective at removing VOCs, while physically removing the hazards provides the biggest improvements.
Track VOC Levels Throughout the Supply Chain
Finally, businesses should test products, packaging and workspaces for VOC levels throughout the supply chain. Start by testing current workflows and materials to set a baseline for future comparison. Then, after implementing changes like using new materials or improving ventilation, test to see if and how contamination levels have improved.
These tests will reveal where VOCs arise in the supply chain and which mitigation strategies are the most effective. Conducting and adapting to them regularly will help supply chains become as safe as possible.
VOCs Are a Pressing But Fixable Issue
As supply chain demand ramps up, VOCs will become a more concerning issue. While these hazards are widespread and dangerous, they’re manageable. Once organizations know where they arise, they can take appropriate measures to address them.
Following these steps will help reduce and mitigate VOCs throughout the supply chain. When that happens, companies can rest knowing their workers and customers are safer.
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