They arrive every week—a big stack of laundered red shop towels—ready for cleaning, wiping and soaking up just about anything. They might look clean, but are they really? You might be in for quite a surprise. But you won’t be alone: According to a survey by Kimberly-Clark Professional, about 56% of workers who used shop towels every day weren’t aware of the exposure risks that laundered shop towels present.
The Long Journey
If shop towels could talk, they’d probably have quite a tale to tell of all of the various places they’ve been and the types of processes they’ve seen. That’s because wipes are generally collected from many different types of facilities before they’re laundered together in large batches. So, your towels are likely to be washed with towels from automotive shops, electronics and heavy equipment manufacturers, food and beverage processing facilities, printers, and other types of businesses in your area.
That means that the towels in the stack you just received most likely are not the same ones you sent to the launderer last week. And that can cause problems—especially if there are chemical residues, metal shavings or other contaminants that could foul up your processes, scratch delicate parts or injure your workforce.
Fresh to Your Door
Commercial launderers are just like any other business: They need to control costs. Water and detergent are two of the variables under their control. So when it comes to washing shop towels, it’s common for them to use cold water and minimal amounts of detergent. That yields towels that still contain grease, oil, chemical residues and heavy metals after they are washed.
A 2011 Gradient survey found that 100% of the “clean” towels collected from 26 different facilities still contained grease, oil and heavy metals. The study also found that the average worker used 12–14 towels a day, and with that kind of usage, the contaminants that were left in the towels after washing exceeded established exposure limits for many of the contaminants.
The residual contaminants in towels can cause dermatitis and other health problems such as nervous system damage, reproductive issues, cancer, and skin and kidney disease. Even workers who use just three towels a day can be exposed to higher levels of lead than are permitted in drinking water. And sadly, in a survey of 263 U.S. manufacturing workers, only 44% were aware of the exposure risks that laundered shop towels present.
Here’s a closer look at 12 of the contaminants, where they are commonly used, and the health hazards they present. Remember that all of these contaminants were found in the towels sampled: