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History of sandblasting

In this blog post, we will examine the progression of blasting with silica sand from its inception to the current day.

The timeline below specifically outlines the historical progression of sandblasting in the UK.

Why is the term sandblasting being still used?

Sandblasting with silica sand has been illegal in the UK since 1949. The term sandblasting however is still used as a generic catch-all for abrasive blasting. Read on to find out more about the history of sandblasting.

History of Sandblasting in the UK

Inventor Benjamin Chew Tilghman issued the first sandblasting patent
Inventor of sandblasting, Benjamin Chew Tilghman, sandblasting.

For those new to the whole idea of blasting, sandblasting is a surface treatment method where abrasive media is directed under high pressure onto a workpiece to clean, shape, or prepare it. Examples of sandblasting applications are corrosion removal, smoothing surfaces, texturisation, and etching. It was first patented in 1870 by Benjamin Chew Tilghman, a Pennsylvanian inventor.

Tilghman had first seen the effect of wind abrasion on glass panes while fighting for the union army during the American Civil War; this served as the basis of his later sandblasting invention. After the war, Tilghman moved to London in the United Kingdom and started his sandblasting business. He later moved to the north of England, quickly becoming the sandblasting industry’s national hub due to the steel production there.

Compressed air was added to sandblasting
Archive image of two contractors snadblasting a large steel water pipe in rural America, circa 1920s.

Tilghman’s sandblasting invention was later perfected in 1904 by adding compressed air; this addition sped up processing and enabled more vigorous application methods, for instance, heavy corrosion removal. However, operators and workers still had minimal protection against the dust it generated.

The first sandblasting cabinet
First sandblasting cabinet, with rudimentary dust extraction -1920

From the 1870s to the late 1910s, sandblasting was carried out in open spaces, with little to no operator protection from the large amounts of silica dust it generated. Silica inhalation poses an extreme health risk, with sustained long-term exposure causing silicosis, a debilitating lung condition. Silica dust inhalation has also been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer and the development of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). As a result, in 1918, an innovation that aimed to protect workers from silica dust swept the industry: the first sandblasting cabinet. A screen protected the operator, and an exhaust fan drew away particulate from the operator’s face. However, the risk of silica dust inhalation was ever-present.

The first iterations of blast rooms, using silica sand as an abrasive
Old archive drawing of the exterior of one of the first blast rooms.

During the 1930s, the first blast rooms started appearing with rudimentary PPE and dust extraction systems. Please follow the link to our blast room page for more information on blast rooms.

The Health and Safety at Work Act
Archive image, circa 1970s USA, of two contractors blasting outside using a blast pot; both are wearing PPE.

In 1974, the Safety at Work Act came into force, enshrining that employers had to protect employees from harm at work. This affected the surface preparation and finishing industry by mandating the provision of respiratory equipment and PPE for their workforce, including the wearing of protective clothing when blasting.

Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations
Archive image of a contractor sandblasting outside in full PPE, circa 1970s USA.

Enacted in 1988, this series of regulations expand on the general requirement to protect people from harm by providing employers (and contractors) with details on how to apply protection when it comes to substances hazardous to health. In COSHH’s guidelines, dangerous substances can take many forms, including chemicals, dust, vapour, mists, fumes, gases, and much more. COSHH also specifically outlines exposure limits, general safety guidelines, safety data sheets, types of PPE and their uses, control measures, monitoring, health surveillance, training, emergency planning, and risk assessments.

Amendments to the COSHH Act and the ban of silica sand used in abrasive blasting
Blast operator outside in full PPE sitting on top of processed steel.

Blasting with silica sand in the UK was banned in 1949. Still, it wasn’t until 1999 that the COSHH act was updated to clearly define and expressly prohibit the use of silica sand for blasting purposes to protect those at risk of inhaling silica and ensure the protection of the environment. COSHH defines silica sand as any abrasive media where the concentration of silica present exceeds 1%. As a result, in countries that have banned silica sand, sandblasting is now known as grit or abrasive blasting (despite the phrase remaining as a common term).

Additional worker protections through COSHH amendments
Operator adjusting blast pressure on a blast pot beneath the abrasive separator unit, at Wykes Commerical Vehicles' blast room.

In addition, COSHH was amended in 2002 with additional RPE (respiratory protection equipment) regulations. This amendment states that all workers carrying out their duties in hazardous environments must wear appropriate respiratory equipment and that RPE must protect the wearer from various hazards, suit various work situations, and match the specific requirements of the worker.

The move away from silica sand as a blast media has opened a large and diverse market for different abrasives. The most common abrasives used today are; slag grits, olivine, garnet, glass bead, stainless steel, hi-chrome, aluminium oxide, and plastic media, to name a few. For more information on abrasive media, please view our abrasive media guide.

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