Clark’s Corner: A Culture of Safety

Clark’s Corner: A Culture of Safety

We’re certainly a tough bunch in collision repair, but even the toughest guy in your shop is still at the mercy of flying debris, dangerous overspray or solvent absorption.


I recently visited two similarly sized body shops several states away from each other. From the street, they both presented very well. Their parking lots were tidy, their signage was clear and colorful, the window and door glass were sparkly clean, and the front offices looked great. Sadly, neither facility had a clean production area. But that’s OK, both shops were clearly doing well and were closing the sales without resorting to taking Mrs. Smith on a back-end tour.

Touring the Shop

I’m a great fan of taking reluctant customers back into the shop to see firsthand how carefully their vehicles will be repaired. The reason this works so well is that so few shops can do it. The last estimates Mrs. Smith collected from competitive shops were all delivered with a smile and a not-so-heartfelt, “Let us know if we can help you.” Seeing her hesitation to say “yes,” the few shops with clean production areas provide Mrs. (or Mister) Smith with safety glasses and an invitation to accompany them through the “Employees Only” doorway into the shop. To see what? Anything – the frame machine with electronic measurement, the snazzy new heated downdraft booth, the curtained-off area for aluminum repairs, or my favorite, the mixing room. You’re already saying to yourself, “What shop could actually do that?” I’ve been in a few, but they’re rare.

Why the paint room? In my experience, virtually the only thing the average collision repair consumer knows about the actual repair process is color match. They live by or work with someone whose car has mismatched panels under the streetlights (called metamerism, or the effect of various light sources on color), and they definitely don’t want that to happen to them. So, my favorite workspace closing tip goes like this: “Mrs. Smith, I know you are concerned about color match. I wanted to show you just how seriously we take that issue here at XYZ Autobody.” At which point, they turn on the mixing scale and simply blow on the mixing deck. The numbers flash in the display with no more than a puff of air. “My goodness,” says Mrs. Smith, “that scale is certainly sensitive!” This gives my killer closer the perfect opportunity to explain that the expensive digital scale is just one of the extraordinary steps they take to ensure her satisfaction with their repair. Then, they walk back through the shop to the office and close the sale.

Neither of the two shops I reference here could do this, as both back shops looked like typical dusty, cluttered body shops. But they were both doing fine, had good close rates (70 percent plus of estimates became ROs) and delivered nice-looking and safe repairs. What was the difference between them then? A culture of safety in one, and a culture of machismo in the other.

Safety First

To review quickly, numerous laws and regulations govern workplace safety. Many rating bodies pronounce safety gear as “approved” for the hazards, including NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration), ANSI (American National Standards Institute) and others. Everyone is very clear that it is the responsibility of the employer to provide suitable PPE (personal protective equipment) to protect their employees from the many hazards found at work. Both shops were buying safety glasses, respirators, paint suits and latex gloves, but in only one shop did I see many people wearing them consistently. If you haven’t noticed, we’re a bunch of manly men in the auto body trade. There are lots of ways to get hurt, from 20 tons of pulling power to deadly paint fumes to enough heat to melt steel, so collision repair isn’t for the faint of heart. “Real men don’t need no safety gear!” is the industry’s macho cry. They’ll just tough it out – that is, until they’re hurt so badly they miss work from their injuries.

Back in my younger days, I did lots of Saturday seminars in hotel meeting rooms. For $99, you could hear me talk about producing cleaner paint work or saving money on materials or putting the pencil to major equipment purchases. No matter my topic that day, I always included a pitch to think of safety from their family’s standpoint. While they may indeed be the toughest hombres on the shop floor, their wife/children/parents would miss them if they were incapacitated with an easily preventable injury.

Eye Injuries

I would ask my audience to raise their hand if they had been to any medical professional to have something removed from their eye, not counting the junk they dug out on their own. Most hands in the room went up (mine too), and I asked how many had been to the doctor twice for this. Some hands went down, lots stayed up. I would often get to six trips to have foreign matter professionally removed before all the hands went down. Several times after the program, techs would come up to say they had been to the doctor many more than six times but were embarrassed to admit it. I hoped so!

This is an intelligence test; it can happen to anyone once or even twice, but by the time you’re sitting in the emergency room the sixth time wondering if you’ll keep your eyesight, I would recommend a new plan.

Prevent the eye injury by – ready – wearing legal safety glasses! Legal because they’ll be marked (no exception) with the ANSI Z-87 standard for high-velocity impact. If there is no Z87 marking, then they’re not legal in a body shop. The employer must provide them, and they did in both my sample shops, but in Shop A, no one enforced wearing them. In Shop B, everyone was wearing glasses, and not only the foreman reminded them, they reminded each other.

Breathe Easy

Respirators are another piece of safety gear that employers must provide and sensible technicians willingly wear. In a collision shop, three basic hazards exist: dust or particles, fumes or spray mists and – most critically – isocyanate-laden fumes. Legal dust masks meet the original TC-21C NIOSH standard – TC for training and certification, 21C for the hazard, and the last digits on the mask following the TC-21C are the order in which the mask was approved. For example, a TC-21C-4545 would be the 4,545th device to be granted approval for that standard. No legal dust or particle mask has a single rubber band; they have at least two straps to keep the mask correctly positioned on the tech’s face. Single rubber band particle masks will still trap some dust, but are not a legal solution in body shops.

TC-23C describes the standard for a negative-pressure (air is drawn into the filters from the surrounding atmosphere) air-purifying device, using an activated charcoal canister that’s supposed to absorb the harmful vapors and spray mists. And it will, if the filter media has some capacity to absorb left in it. Once the cartridge is full, new solvent fumes push old fumes right out the other end. I always thought the best way to get rich in our business was to invent a legal charcoal filter that will tell you when it’s full, like the Butterball turkey with the little pop-out device that signifies when the turkey is cooked. Sadly, the last legal charcoal respirator I picked up had an approval number well into the thousands; if the last 3,000-plus firms who tried couldn’t do it, looks to me like it ain’t happening. Change filters often!

With both negative-pressure respirators, the tech must be clean shaven to get a satisfactory seal to the face. If you’re bearded, like I am, the dust and fumes are pulled into your lungs much more readily through your beard than through the restrictive filler media. While solvent poisoning may take years to do permanent brain damage, isocyanate poisoning is immediate and irreversible. The isocyanate reaction within the paint is a moisture-transfer crosslink that’s heat sensitive. Inside your wet, 98.6-degree lungs, the opportunity for the iso to cross-link with you is perfect. With clean cheeks, fresh filters and the right-size face piece, charcoal filter respirators can stop the isocyanate fumes from hooking up with your lungs. But since the paint company can’t depend on those circumstances existing in every shop, they require a supplied-air, positive-pressure (more clean air is being pumped into the facepiece than you can inhale) TC-19C SAR (supplied-air respirator) to legally spray any coating with isocyanate catalysts. In Shop B, they were actually wearing them!


You knew when you started reading this column which of my sample shops your current body shop resembles. It was a treat to see everyone in Shop B take safety seriously. In Shop A, the manly man philosophy actually caused some techs to ridicule others for wearing glasses, respirators, suits or gloves. Grow up, boys! We’re certainly a tough bunch in collision repair, but the baddest ass in your shop is still at the mercy of flying debris, dangerous overspray or solvent absorption. The staff at Shop B were just as macho as the staff at Shop A, but they appeared to recognize that protecting yourself is a good idea. Change the culture in your shop if it isn’t what you want it to be.


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