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Is My Job Killing Me

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Timothy, your question is a good one and involves more than a yes or a no answer. As I read your question, I can’t help but notice that there are some factors in your life that may be causing you to ask this question now. All of us, as we travel through life’s journey, have events and experiences that cause us to take notice of things more closely than we might have prior to these events. You’ve stated that you have a 1-year-old son and you’re currently 41 years old. Both having a child and reaching our 40s can effect our priorities and our outlook on life. I, like you, have children – two sons – and I share some of your concerns.

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But living a long, healthy life and having quality of life isn’t just about exposures to hazards at work. It helps to like your job and enjoy your work, which can prevent bringing home frustrations from work. These same frustrations can cause tension, which can lead to stress and then to health-related problems. So you first have to decide if you like the autobody industry enough to stick around, or if you want to leave it and trade it for a different set of risks. Most hands-on, skill-based careers have potential health risks, but it sounds like you’re minimizing your risks by practicing good, safe procedures.

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When I was asked to answer your question, I spent many hours on the Internet looking for an answer. I also contacted many industry experts and sources I’ve acquired over the years to find an answer. What I found is that most of them can cite examples of persons who’ve become ill or have experienced side effects due to possible exposure to hazards in the autobody industry. And most of these cases illustrate how the exposure occurred or how it’s believed to have occurred.

You, however, are asking about a study done over a lifetime for someone who’s taken the proper precautions. In order for this to occur, several persons would have to be tracked from the beginning of their careers to their end. And this would have to be a large enough pool of participants to get good data. They’d also have to be studied for habits and behaviors away from work, such as smokers verses non-smokers.

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Also, during these people’s lifetime, the autobody industry would change in regard to the types of chemicals and hazards these workers might be exposed to. Just look at the past 20 years and the paint product changes. Also, industry equipment and safety practices have changed.

So if we look at 60- or 70-year-olds who worked in the industry, their exposure wouldn’t be comparable to yours because they would’ve been exposed to different chemicals, used different personal protection equipment (if they even used it) and had different behaviors and attitudes.

I did find some studies that had been done, but they focused on particular workplaces and exposures. They went on to make recommendations as to how to correct conditions they felt weren’t proper. Some of these are on the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Web site and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) site. I also learned that Yale is currently seeking people who work in the spray finishing processes to sign on for a current study. I also found that if you searched occupational hazards, you get tens of thousands of results. But, try as I might, I couldn’t find a case like you asked about in your question.

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But I did find lots of other information, and I’d like to share some of it with you, which might help with your quest for a healthy, long life.

To get us started, let’s review the basics: We need to understand that exposure to chemicals and solvents usually occurs by one of several routes of entry. The most common ones are inhalation, swallowing or absorption. If we understand these routes of entry to our bodies, we can then prevent or, at least, minimize the exposure. Let’s take a look at all three.

Inhalation: Got Clean Air?
Inhalation would likely be seen by most as the likeliest to create exposure. When working with airborne contaminants, solvents and other vapors, personal protection equipment can be used to help prevent exposure.

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Today, air-supplied respirators are commonplace in the spray environment, and you should have annual training for how to use air-purifying respirators. For the sake of this article, I’m assuming you wear a respirator while spraying.

But there are other procedures that can cause exposure and effect our health – procedures that we should be protecting ourselves from, but aren’t.

We generally wear respirators while spraying or during repair operations that generate airborne contaminants. But what about while mixing paint products and other chemicals? Are you mixing in a well-ventilated area under an exhaust hood or wearing a respirator? Also, avoid placing your head over the top of a container where fumes can be more concentrated.

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Buffing of paint finishes is another common shop operation that causes exposure since respirators aren’t commonly worn while doing it. Ever buffed a fresh finish and then blown your nose to find that it’s plugged with lint from the buffing pad? Chemicals from the compound and paint are in there as well. This is particularly important when dealing with dry sanding and buffing of fresh paint finishes.

Undercoating operations are another example of where respirators aren’t as likely to be used – but should be. These products contain solvents and other chemicals. Any time there are airborne contaminants and, particularly, above permissible limits, you should wear a respirator.

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Also, after spraying products or at the end of a work day following spraying, are you changing clothes before going home? Do you wear a painter’s suit and remove it after spraying? If not, you could be continuing to breath some materials that are on your clothing. Painter’s suits allow us to remove the contaminated item and have clean clothes under it. Also, if you go home with contamination on the clothes and pick up a small child, he could be getting second-hand exposure.

Most of the exposures I’m referring to here would effect our respiratory system. But some can affect other systems as well. In some of the articles and studies I found, they discuss many of the effects being reversed or stopped by discontinued exposure. Getting away from the exposure for only a short time can help, too. This can include time periods as short as two or three days. So, if on weekends, we do body work in small garages at home and continue or even increase our exposure, we’re not helping ourselves, are we?

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About three years ago, I wanted to regain some of my quality of life as it related to my physical condition – partly because of the 40s thing and partly because I wasn’t willing to get beat by my oldest son, who was moving into his teenage years. So I bought a good road bike and started riding. Now, cranking out a 40- to 60-mile ride is a normal thing, and commuting to work by bike is a treat. My son decided to give it a try as well, and this gave us time together to visit. Still, my getting in shape didn’t prevent my 15-year-old son from beating me last year, but I was OK with it because at least I was out there.

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Interestingly, what I found was that my whole attitude changed toward the use of personal protection equipment at work and in regard to how I wanted certain operations done to eliminate exposures to everyone in the shop. I’m not saying everyone needs to take up a physically challenging activity. Rather, our health and related habits are a lot about attitude.

Ingestion: Don’t Eat the Chemicals
Ingestion also is a route of entry into our body. OK, are we actually going to drink or eat the chemicals in a body shop? Not knowingly (at least I hope not)! But if we don’t wash our hands on a regular basis during the day, we may in fact be doing so.

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This is particularly important prior to any eating or drinking. Food and beverage items should never be in the work environment where they can become contaminated. Flat tops of beverage containers catch particles settling from the air and can be consumed when drinking.

And if someone smokes and doesn’t wash his hands, he can be ingesting the chemicals through the cigarette. By bringing these chemicals in through a burning cigarette, he can greatly increase his exposure. Smoking itself is one of those habits that can change the whole health risk picture, especially when it’s done along with autobody procedures.

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Another way we can ingest chemicals from our hands is by bringing our hand to our mouth or nose when sneezing or coughing. If your hands are contaminated, you’d be better to turn your head and let everything fly. We inhale heavily during coughing and sneezing and pull contaminants from our hand. (Mom had good intentions in teaching us proper habits, but this particular habit might not serve us well in the autobody shop.)

Absorption: Soak It Up
Absorption is another route of entry, and chemical exposure can occur through our skin. This commonly happens when solvents get on our skin and are absorbed into it – and then into our blood stream. This process can happen very rapidly and doesn’t require soaking our hands with a chemical.

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Gloves of the proper type can protect the fingers and hands. One of the studies I found showed that technicians use gloves while mixing and spraying but not while cleaning guns. Also, keep in mind that lighter gloves used for mixing and spraying don’t hold up during gun cleaning. Heavier gloves are needed, but they make it tougher to handle the gun and tools during the cleaning process. Still, they’re needed just as much or more during these procedures to prevent exposure. (Not only do we eliminate much of the exposure by using them, we also end up with nicer hands to touch and hold the ones we care about.)

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Absorption can also occur with any other exposed skin. Because the top of our heads and scalp can collect airborne materials, wearing a hat can help prevent much of the material from getting on top of our heads. Wearing long sleeves during many operations – particularly spraying of paint products – also can prevent exposure. This can be done by wearing painter suits and climbing out of them when you’re done spraying.

Eyes can also be a route of entry. Our eyes require a lot of oxygen and are a moist surface. Many paint products use moisture to help cure. They also rob the oxygen needed for our eyes. When our eyes become irritated, this is a possible warning sign of exposure. Wearing fully enclosed goggles and a full-face spray mask or helmet can help eliminate the problem. Our eyes also should be protected at most times by safety glasses.

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Welding flash eye risk is another type of hazard. We need to protect ourselves from it by using the correct helmets and shade of lenses for the type of welding we’re doing.

And let’s not forget our ears. We often overlook our hearing, yet the losses we suffer can worsen over the years. And they may not be reversible. While sometimes not being able to hear a particular person may be a benefit, overall, it can mean a reduction in quality of life. (After all, many of us have paid good money at some point in time to buy a quality sound system of some type.) All kidding aside, some of the studies I found determined that many shops and technicians overlook hearing protection. And it’s not just loud noises that can damage our ears. Prolonged noise can also lead to loss of hearing. If ringing in the ear occurs or you feel the inner ear vibrating, take heed.

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Know the Warning Signs
Knowing the warning signs for exposure to any of the dangers or chemicals in the workplace is important. You may have to look at Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) or read product warning labels to know them, but once you do, you’re more likely to recognize them and take action to minimize or completely eliminate your exposure.

For example, warning signs of exposure to many paint solvents and chemicals can be moodiness or symptoms similar to depression. Other warning signs are symptoms similar to asthma and skin rashes.

Any time you suspect that you’re seeing signs, pay attention and take care of them. Things are best corrected as soon as they occur – making them short-term exposures rather than allowing them to continue to where they can become long-term conditions that are harder to correct.

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Certainly there are many things that I could continue to share that are related to the question and the results I found, but I think the answer should be clear at this point. And what I’ve shared is by no means meant as a complete personal protection plan for those of us working in the autobody industry. Rather, it should show you the importance of having the right attitude and the willingness to become educated about the hazards. Thanks for asking the question Timothy!

Writer Tom Brandt is an autobody collision technology instructor at Minnesota State College Southeast Technical Campus in Winona, Minn. The program is a post-secondary, two-year diploma program and is NATEF certified.— Brandt has 16 years of teaching experience, has been an I-CAR instructor for 15 years and, prior to that, was a combination technician.

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