By Walter, Laura
Occupational Hazards , Vol. 70, No. 8
You might expect that the designers and builders of some of the world's most advanced military, commercial and industrial helicopters have to be progressive and innovative to succeed. But the team at Sikorsky, a United Technologies Corp. (UTC) company based in Stratford, Conn., goes a step farther to ensure its workers and the environment remain protected both today and well into the future.
To accomplish this, Sikorsky is willing to invest the time and money to seek solutions for risks and problems that might not manifest for years. This includes developing new, safer primers and coatings, exploring solar power or taking company headquarters off the electrical grid--initiatives Sikorsky already has started to tackle.
By protecting its employees and remaining dedicated to "doing the right thing," Sikorsky has reduced its accident rates, workers' compensation costs and carbon footprint to become a company synonymous with strong leadership, safety and environmental responsibility.
Eliminating the Risk
Hexavalent chromium is a potentially fatal carcinogen that can lead to lung cancer, respiratory problems and other serious ailments. Employees in various industries may be at risk for hex chrome exposure--including those who maintain and repair helicopters, like the workers at Sikorsky.
David Eherts, vice president of environmental health and safety at Sikorsky, recognized that both using hex chrome and not using it posed safety hazards. Hex chrome introduces an industrial hygiene risk for workers, but it also effectively protects against corrosion. Without proper corrosion protection, helicopter pilots and crew face serious safety-of-flight risks.
Furthermore, the presence of hex chrome in Sikorsky's coatings and primers isn't just a hazard for employees who initially apply the coatings, but also for those working in the future. The larger issue, Eherts explains, revolves around the aircraft maintenance and repair, which could stretch on for the next 40-50 years.
Eherts and others at Sikorsky set about finding a solution to their hex chrome dilemma. If an adequate coating and primer substitute existed, then the company could eliminate the hazards not only for employees who initially apply the primers and coatings, but also for those working in the future.
"If we took hex chrome off, all those workers wouldn't have to worry about respiratory programs and the potential for cancer in the future," he explains. "So we saw a huge benefit to doing it, but we also had to manage the risk very carefully."
The challenge, of course, was to banish the use of hex chrome on helicopters without sacrificing any corrosion protection.
"We had to come up with a system that had at least as good, if not better, corrosion resistance on the parts," Eherts says. "And more difficult, we had to convince our engineers of that so we could get hex chrome out of the work environment."
After spending 2 years developing and extensively testing new primers and coatings, Sikorsky's engineers arrived at a solution. The result, according to Eherts, is a better system for corrosion resistance and the elimination of hex chrome from the outside of the aircraft. He adds that this process fits in with OSHA's hierarchy of controls, which states that the first step should be to eliminate or substitute the risk.
"And that's exactly what we did," he says.
Sikorsky recently implemented the hex chrome replacement program for its military helicopters, which resulted in the company receiving the Secretary of the Army Award, an environmental award that honored Sikorsky for removing hex chrome from aircrafts. The company also recently began using the new coating on its commercial helicopters.
Evaluating the Cost
"I've come to understand that the hierarchy of controls saves money," Eherts says. …