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Industrial Chemicals Workers

The Job

Workers in industrial chemicals plants make all the products previously mentioned plus thousands more. Basic chemicals such as sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide, sodium chloride, and ammonia are produced by major corporations. The demand for these products is so great that only large companies can afford to produce massive volumes of them. Corporations build the factories and buy the equipment to process the raw materials and produce chemicals. Big companies and small may make specialty chemicals as well, such as adhesives, additives, antioxidants, corrosion inhibitors, cutting fluids, dyes, lubricants, and pigments.  

Because of the large variety of chemicals produced and the number of different processes involved, there are hundreds of job categories. Many of the jobs have quite a bit in common.

In general, workers measure batches according to formulas; set reaction parameters for temperature, pressure, or flow of materials; and read gauges to monitor processes. They do routine testing, keep records, and write progress reports. Many operators use computerized control panels to monitor processes. Some operate mixing machines, agitator tanks, blenders, steam cookers, and other equipment. A worker may pour two or more raw ingredients from storage vats into a reaction vessel or empty cars from overhead conveyors, dumping the contents of a barrel or drum, or manually transfer materials from a hopper, box, or other container. The worker measures a preset amount of ingredients and then activates the mixing machine, while keeping an eye on the gauges and controls.

When the mixture has reached the desired consistency, color, or other characteristic, a test sample is removed. If the analysis is satisfactory, the mixture is moved to its next destination by conveyor or by piping, which pumps product into another container or processing machine or empties it into drums or vats. The operator then records the amount and condition of the mixture and readies his or her equipment for the next run.

Other workers may separate contaminants, undesirable byproducts, and unreacted materials with equipment that filters, strains, sifts, or centrifuges. Filters and centrifuges are often used to separate a slurry into liquid and solid parts. The filter-press operator sets up the press by covering the filter plates with canvas or paper sheets that separate the solids from the liquid portion. After the filtration, the plates are removed and cleaned. The centrifuge is a machine that spins a solid-liquid mixture like a washing machine in the spin cycle to separate it into solid and liquid components. If the desired end product is the liquid, the centrifuge operator discards the solids, and vice versa.

Distillation operators use equipment that separates liquid mixtures by first heating them to their boiling points. The heated vapors rise into a distillation column. If a very pure liquid is desired, a fractional distillation column is used. A distillation apparatus consists of an electrically or steam-heated still pot, a distillation column, a water-cooled condenser, and a collector. In this process, the hot vapors rise through the distillation column. The condenser cools the vapors and converts them back into a liquid. The condensed liquid is collected and removed for further use. Distillation, a very important separation technique for purifying and separating liquids, is widely used in the liquor industry, petroleum refineries, and chemical companies that make and use liquid chemicals.

Solid chemical mixtures often need to be dried before they can be used. Workers heat, bake, dry, and melt chemicals with kilns, vacuum dryers, rotary or tunnel furnaces, and spray dryers. The workers who operate this equipment, regardless of the industry, perform the same operations. 

The paint industry manufactures paints, varnishes, shellacs, lacquers, and a variety of liquid products for decorative and protective coatings. While creating their own product, paint manufacturers also purchase chemicals, resins, solvents, dyes, and pigments from others to create their merchandise. Coating and laminating are related industries. Their workers operate press rollers; laminating, coating, and printing machines; and sprayers. They carefully apply specified thicknesses of coating materials to a variety of substrates, such as paper, plastic, metal, and fabric.

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