Employees in fibreglass reinforcement industry are (literally) choking on plastic – MUT study found

Employees in fibreglass reinforcement industry are (literally) choking on plastic – MUT study found

“Our planet is choking on plastic.” This was a warning issued by the United Nation’s Environment Programme on the threat of plastic to the planet.

But for employees in the fibreglass reinforcement industry, the threat is too close to home. They are literally choking on plastic. According to a study co-authored by a Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT) academic, these employees’ exposure to styrene increased the risk of chronic respiratory symptoms and reduced lung function.

The study, titled Styrene associated respiratory outcomes among reinforced plastic

industry workers, was co-authored by Zanele Zulu, a lecturer in the Department of Environmental Health at MUT, and Professor Rajen Naidoo of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. It was published in the Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health Journal.


Zulu et al’s ’s study found that “respiratory symptoms’ prevalence increased statistically significantly across low, medium and high cumulative exposure categories.” The study did not find any link between doctor-diagnosed diseases increased exposure to styrene.

Of the 254 employees who participated in the study, 33 employees in the medium and high exposure to styrene category suffered from chronic cough compared to six of their counterparts in the low exposure category. Thirty two employees in the medium and high exposure category suffered from chronic phlegm compared to four of their counterparts in low exposure category; 14 employees in medium and high exposure category suffered from breathlessness compared to just two in the low exposure category, while 32 employees in the medium and high exposure categories experienced wheezing, compared to six employees in the low risk category.

“The prevalence of chronic cough and wheezing was similar among males and females, whereas breathlessness was higher among females (15.3% vs. 3.6%); phlegm was higher among males (8.2 vs. 1.7%),” Zulu et al’s study explained. “While the women smoked substantially less and worked in the lower exposed areas as compared to their men counterparts, we are not able to determine the reasons for this variation in symptoms presentation.”

The study was conducted at a fiberglass reinforced plastics factory in Durban, South Africa. This factory manufactures vessels and tanks. The factory’s operation took place in the General Laminating Department (GLD) and the Fitting Department (FD). The lion share of the factory’s laminating tasks happened in the GLD which is big enough to accommodate large components, vessels, and tanks, and had a section for grinding and refining components. The FD, on the other hand, was reserved for small parts and accessories.

“As expected, the GLD had the highest styrene level of exposure as compared to the FD. These differences in exposure levels reflect the tasks performed in the departments, with the larger vessels being processed in the GLD, and small components in the FD. Both departments’ styrene levels of exposure were within compliance of the South African legal occupational exposure limits stipulated in the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1993,” Zulu’s study found.

The findings of this study provide further evidence that health-based exposure standards as opposed to permissible exposure standards are needed to protect the health of employees in this, and similar work environments.