Speaking with line workers, I’ve heard concerns that Fiber Reinforced Polymer (FRP) utility poles present more health hazards than wood poles. The presumption is that the fibrous glass dust produced when cutting a synthetic pole is finer and more toxic than wood sawdust. This is incorrect.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard CAS 65997-17-3 explains that fibrous glass dust, which can be produced when cutting FRP, is nuisance dust, or particulate that typically does not yield significant harm over the normal exposure period. OSHA requires no additional protection beyond normal goggles and gloves for workers cutting FRP utility poles. Composites, in fact, create less harmful dust than other pole materials.
Clearing the Dust
Whether using wood, steel, concrete or composite utility poles, there is a strong possibility you’re going to be drilling and producing chips or dust. Installing steps, drilling holes for brackets and attaching ground wire clips will all require drilling.
This drilling produces dust. Workers must protect their eyes and hands whenever they use a saw or drill, but some materials require extra protection like a mask, respirator or even a full-body protective suit. FRP requires none of these extra layers of personal protective equipment.
Wood, steel, concrete and composites all produce dust when drilled – but they vary in danger to humans.
Fibrous glass particles are misunderstood as dangerous and carcinogenic. It is true that ultra-fine glass wool reinforcement fibers are “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” according to the National Toxicology Program. But FRP composite poles do not use glass wool reinforcement fibers. According to the ACMA Advisory “Glass Fiber Dust from FRP Composite Utility Poles” (December 2022 edition):
The continuous filament reinforcement fibers used in composites are made using a different process than glass wool and the resulting fibers are greater than 6 microns in diameter. This larger diameter means the fibers are not considered to be respirable and do not have the same potential to travel deeply into the lungs. Even when composite fibers are mechanically worked by processes like drilling or cutting, studies have shown that the reinforcement fibers break perpendicularly across the long axis and do not split into smaller-diameter fibers.
The simple fact is that the particles produced when drilling or cutting FRP are too large to cause respiratory problems. Air sampling for both (Total & Respirable) dust and fibrous glass dust was conducted at CP in accordance with NIOSH 0500 (nuisance dust) and NIOSH 7400 “B” rules (fibrous dust). This testing was done in an area where fiberglass products were being cut, ground and drilled without local ventilation for a whole shift. Testing results showed that worker exposure was minimal, at 0.98mg/m3 for (Total & Respirable dust) (OSHA PEL 15mg/m3) and .04 f/cc for fibrous glass (Proposed OSHA PEL 3.0 f/cc). This testing showed no respirator use is required at our CCG facility, nor do we foresee it as necessary in the field (outdoors) while doing similar activities. Air monitoring should be conducted if a hazard assessment determines the potential for over-exposure, however.
Beyond Dust, FRP Poles are a Safer Solution
An FRP pole is much lighter than other materials. This lighter weight translates to safer, faster installation – from start to finish.
Composite poles can be transported to the site in fewer loads than wood, metal or concrete. This reduces the emissions created during transport and reduces wait times for materials. They can be delivered predrilled to the utilities to significantly reduce the number of holes that would normally be drilled in the field. And once at the site, the lightweight FRP poles can be easily manipulated and installed. Their inherent dielectric strength adds a significant level of safety compared to conductive pole structures.
In many cases, composite utility poles also have a much longer service life than wood and can withstand much stronger weather conditions. This means that line crews reduce the number of installations and repairs to the poles themselves, especially compared to wood.
With the coming wood pole shortage and the strains on labor and supply chains, there’s no better time to learn about easy-to-source, made-in-the-USA composite utility poles and to do your research to bust myths about FRP. Contact us today to see if FRP poles are a good solution for your utility project.