If your shop never drapes a burlap bag over a stretched frame chain, hasn’t seen the #10 green welding helmet for months now or has a painter who punches a hole in the center of his dust respirator so he can smoke while he paints, stop reading this. You’ll save time by skipping the following shop safety advice. Why not use that time to program 9-1-1 into all your shop’s phones?
Well youngsters,” he says in a quaky voice, “the last time I wrote about shop safety in these pages was December of 1993. We had indoor plumbing most places and electric lights darn near everywhere.”
OK, so I’m not quite that old (and 1993 wasn’t quite that archaic). But it has been a while since I last wrote about this topic.
In researching this article, I conducted a personal, not-even-slightly-scientific shop survey to see if today’s body shop techs are taking better care of themselves than they did 12 years ago.
I’m pleased to report that it does appear they’re more often wearing safety gear of all kinds. Consistently in my recent shop visits, techs were doing a good job of preserving their personal health and well-being.
Unfortunately, not every body shop and not every technician dress for success.
Sadly the “manly man doesn’t need no safety protection” attitude is still alive in some body shops. The shops that practiced poor safety habits (or no safety habits) told me they didn’t have time to fool with “it,” whichever safety gear “it” was. They were too busy fixing cars and anyway, real men go to the hospital to have something dug out of their eye every couple of months anyway. Right?
The positive results I observed were in shops that exhibited a “culture of safety.” By that I mean those body shops that both expected and required their employees to wear the safety gear the shop provided. These shops were also focused on fixing cars. However, they realized that keeping everyone healthy and at work produced more completed repairs at year end. The moments spent donning the safety glasses or ear muffs were insignificant. Not to mention, being in compliance with those humorless federal inspectors.
I’m pleased to say that I also saw many individual techs who wisely chose to protect their own health by wearing appropriate gear even in shops where other techs didn’t. Good for those folks.
Hey, at the end of the day, it isn’t about complying with federal workplace laws – it’s about staying healthy enough to play with your grandkids.
Curious about what I observed in the most productive and prosperous shops I visited? Here we go …
The Greatest Safety Hazard: Fire
I’ll start where I started 12 years ago. It still looks to me like the greatest safety hazard body and paint shops face is fire. Clean production areas are the mark of a well-run body shop in my experience. Not that you can’t do quality work in a pigpen (I’ve seen it done), but clean, well-lit and regularly maintained work areas are a win all around. The customer is impressed with your careful housekeeping (and is reassured about leaving his car with you), the employees can find what they’re looking for quickly and there’s little chance of setting a big pile of solvent-soaked masking paper on fire.
That said, let’s take a look at how you can reduce your chances of a serious shop fire:
Properly placed fire extinguishers and fire drills – Do you think it’s more likely that any given body shop will catch fire (they all weld and spray) or your child’s grade school (very few arc welders or electric grinders) will burn up? I agree. And yet the grade school has a drill every few months to establish exactly what will happen in the unlikely event of a fire. Most body shops have never had a meeting about what happens in the event of a fire.
The model shops in my informal survey all had properly located (local fire department regulations) and fully charged and tagged fire extinguishers. In many cases, the fire extinguisher service company had trained the shop’s employees on how to properly aim and discharge the fire extinguishers. But seldom did I find anyone who had held an actual shop fire drill. Perhaps that might be a good action item for your shop today. If everyone knew what to do in a fire or explosion emergency before the actual emergency, it would be a good thing.
Implement a no-smoking policy and enforce it – There’s no shortage of sources of ignition in a body shop. Sparks from any number of operations will work just fine. However, I believe the fire inspector will tell you that smokers still set off the majority of fires. Make sure your shop has an enforced smoking policy and eliminate the most likely source of ignition.
Think … and be careful – Take extra precautions when welding or cutting since the spark from molten metal (that’s hot!) is just itching to combine with collected flammable vapors and start a toasty fire. An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure!
Don’t tolerate a shop “idiot” – Safety conscious shops try to avoid having a “designated idiot.” This person used to be standard fare in body shops; every shop had a guy with little common sense and a warped sense of humor. You know the guy. He’s the one forever filling balloons or rubber gloves from one of the welding tanks and exploding it in the washroom, or he’s blowing cigar smoke into the intake of the oil-less air supply compressor. Ha ha.
I remember visiting a shop in about 1970, and the new guy was unbolting a gigantic chrome bumper on a Desoto. Unknown to him, the shop prankster had already unbolted one end so that when the new tech pulled his first bolt on his end, the whole bumper fell off and pinned him to the ground. In genuine pain, he lay writhing on the floor while the rest of the shop stood around laughing. His broken ribs slowed him down the rest of the summer but hey, it was funny right? Hopefully, that same designated bolt-pullin’ idiot is no longer part of the team at your shop.
Other Things Safety-Conscious Shops Do
My favorite shops practiced safety as a matter of course. Lifts were locked solid, jack stands were employed, floors were kept clear and dry. Sloppy housekeeping causes lots of falls and sprains. Safety-conscious shops also:
Invest in lighting – Good shops worked hard to keep walkways clear and all areas well-lit. In some of the less careful shops, I saw painters mixing paint in the virtual dark as the one bulb in their mixing room dimly lit their scale. Plentiful lighting is not only a safety issue, but a work quality one as well. If you can’t see well throughout the repair process, prior uncaught mistakes show up too late to be fixed easily, causing expensive re-dos and lost production. Any money you spend on better lighting is well-spent.
Dress appropriately – You can do body work in shorts and a T-shirt, but it doesn’t make it safe. The best shops I saw had technicians dressed like they worked in a body shop. They weren’t wearing tennis shoes or flip flops (saw it!); they were wearing work shoes or boots. Few painters need steel-toed boots, but heavy collision guys would be foolish not to wear them. Dress like you could get hurt at work.
You’ll find long pants, work boots, gloves, respirators and eye protection a must to protect yourself. The best shops had techs dressed like they meant it.
Wear safety glasses – Compliant safety glasses for our industry must meet federal standard Z87, which sets performance criteria for impact resistance, among other things. Aren’t you glad someone tested and approved the pair you’ll wear? Wouldn’t you be sorry if the lens shattered on impact? Wouldn’t you be sorrier still if you weren’t wearing them?
Come on folks, this is the most likely injury you’ll receive while at work. All you have to do is wear safety glasses all the time. Choose a pair that’s not only compliant but comfortable to wear. Options like side panels and UV protection make the glasses even safer.
Note that when wearing both a respirator and eye protection (glasses, goggles, face shield), the respirator must fit first. There must be no obstructions between you and the respirator seal. Glasses, goggles, spray socks or hoods must fit over the respirator straps, never under them.
Wear noise protection when necessary – Workplace noise levels are exactly defined in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). When the decibel level in your shop exceeds the established limits, the employer must provide ear protection. Whether ear plugs or ear muffs, they won’t protect you if you don’t wear them. Some body shop operations are inherently noisy, an air chisel being the most obvious but a whining, too high RPM D/A makes a lot of noise too. No doubt many bodymen and painters have had their hearing ruined willingly at various rock concerts over the years. Save what you have. I said, “Save what you have!” by wearing noise protection when necessary. You can still hear them call you for lunch.
Wear protective gear when welding and cutting – Common sense suggests that wearing leather welding capes and heat-resistant gloves with gauntlet cuffs would keep you from being burned while welding or cutting. Evidently not if you don’t wear them, as I saw from the many welding-scarred arms various techs showed me. In the best shops, I saw techs remind each other to dress right if they saw coworkers without proper gear. The uncovered tech usually said something like, “What are you, my mother?” but I watched them stop and protect themselves several times in my travels. That’s the kind of shop culture I’m talking about.
Does your shop have a team who’ll be laughing at the guy pinned under the bumper or a team who’ll remind the guy who’s welding without a dark shield to use one? There’s your shop’s safety culture right there.
Keep hands clean – Inhaling solvent isn’t the only way to get it into your bloodstream. Many chemicals used in autobody repair will be absorbed through your skin on contact and can enter easily through any cuts or scrapes. Disposable gloves of one material or another have become common in every shop I visited. Not only is that good news on the health front, but good news on the production front, too. It’s faster to peel off a glove than to scrub your hands in lacquer thinner.
I also saw lots of bodymen wearing mechanics gloves; grippy palms and abrasion-resistant backs both seem like good ideas to me.
Suit up – Paint suits were employed at most of the shops I visited – although there did seem to be a falling off on the hottest summer days (duh). Either paper or plastic suits will keep the harmful chemicals off your sensitive body.
But the best reason to use paint suits in my book isn’t painter safety but job quality. The painter can wear jeans, a long-sleeved tee, rubber gloves, a respirator, eye protection and a spray sock and be safe. But the painter in the clean suit will get a cleaner paint job every time. Keeping the dirt stuck to the painter from falling into the paint work is reason enough to wear clean, cover-all paint suits. And throw them away or wash them frequently. The buck you save by wearing it one more time will soon be gone at $0.70 per minute additional buffing time.
Use the right respirator for the job – Three types of respirators are commonly prescribed for collision repair: 1. Dust mask, which protects against the hazards from sanding dust. 2. Negative pressure, cartridge-type air-purifying respirator, which protects against the hazards from vapors and spray mists. 3. Positive pressure, air-supply respirator, which protects from isocyanate catalyzed paints.
1. Approved dust masks have two rubber bands to help locate the mask to your face. Even the best possible filtering system is useless if the mask doesn’t fit well. Air will take the path of least resistance. It would rather rush around a poorly fitting nosepiece than enter through restrictive filter media. Approved dust masks are rated for both their ability to resist oil and their filtering efficiency at a certain particle size. A mask rated N would not be resistant to deterioration when exposed to oil vapors. A mask rated R would be somewhat resistant to oil, and a mask rated P would be oil proof. In addition, the mask must be 95, 99 or 99.97 percent efficient at trapping airborne particles of a specified size. A shop-legal dust mask should meet at least N95 for sanding operations and may need to be R or P rated if the work environment has oil vapors (paints contain oils). No dust mask with a single rubber band head strap is approved for any autobody use.
2. The most popular shop respirator is a negative pressure, cartridge-type air-purifying respirator. These devices are approved to a standard spelled out in the CFR. If they meet requirement TC-23C for vapors and spray mists, they’re issued an approval number in the order in which they were inspected. A mask with a printed rating of TC23C-100 would be the 100th mask issued an approval number. But they’re not approved for paints that contain isocyanate since there’s no way to tell when they’ve stopped working. Period.
3. The standard for positive pressure, air-supply respirators is marked TC-19C. Once again, the approval numbers are issued in the order they were approved. Among the many health benefits of an air supply respirator is that it minimizes the issue of proper fit.
If a negative pressure (you breathe in, the mask collapses against your face) doesn’t seat perfectly to your face, it’ll leak. Positive air pressure masks have an excess of air pumped into the mask, and air is constantly escaping around the edges. Escaping air will push the iso vapors and mists away from the painter’s face. Negative pressure masks draw in the air and try to filter it.
Anyone with facial hair must wear a positive pressure air-supply mask. No dust or vapor mask will work if it doesn’t seal tightly and directly to the wearer’s face. Air will pass through the painter’s beard much more easily than through the charcoal cartridge. (A professional industrial hygiene testing company will refuse to fit test anyone with facial hair. They know they won’t pass.)
Positive pressure, air-supplied respirators provide the safest spray environment for any of the shop hazards. The air supply keeps sanding dusts, spray vapors and harmful isocyanates away from your lungs. The hazards can’t intrude because the escaping air from the air supply sweeps them away.
Conduct and document fit tests – Don’t mistake a fit check for a fit test. A prudent technician will always fit check a cartridge respirator. Strap the device on in the position you’ll wear it during the actual work task. Then plug the intake holes and inhale. The mask should collapse. Next, plug the exhale valves and exhale. The mask should balloon up and not leak at the edge in either case. This quick check will identify any missing valves or gaskets on a recently cleaned respirator.
An actual, legally required fit test is much more structured. Be sure to document the entire process when you conduct fit tests. While that serious-minded federal inspector would like to believe you when you say, “Sure we did that testing,” he’ll require written proof of your compliance.
As always, ignorance of the law is no excuse. Ask your jobber to help you get all your respirator ducks in a row. Several fit testing kits are available. Typically, they contain instructions on how to conduct and document the program, and a videotape of correct respirator selection and wear. They’ll include a method to atomize either a sweet- or bitter-smelling vapor. If you can smell the agent, the mask doesn’t fit. You can also have an outside firm conduct all the testing and complete all the paperwork.
Provide an approved air-supply respirator system – The most important part of the air-supply system is the air source. The CFR calls for Grade D breathable air. The air taken directly from your air compressor is unlikely to be Grade D clean. Even if it were, you’re still required to have an alarm for any air compressor that has oil as a lubricant.
If your compressor has poorly fitting piston rings (surely not your 20-year-old compressor) and some oil were to blow by the rings, it runs the risk of partial combustion when it reaches the scorching hot cylinder walls. Any compressor with oil runs the risk, hence the carbon monoxide (CO) monitor requirement. An oil-less, diaphragm or rotary compressor doesn’t need a monitor since there’s no lubricating oil present.
A system using the shop compressor to generate Grade D air will also need a sophisticated moisture trap and multi-stage filter attachment to ensure dry, clean, Grade D air. One very cool option is a humidifier that makes the dry compressed air easier to breathe.
Once your shop is capable of producing Grade D air, the final step is an approved respirator. Either a tight-fitting, half-mask respirator or a tight-fitting full-face respirator require an air source that will provide at least 4 cubic feet of air (CFM) every minute. Loose-fitting air-supply respirators like hoods or face shield/neck cape devices require 6 CFM of Grade D air to legally supply them. Do not mix components from different manufacturers even if they’re both TC-19C approved. The NIOSH approval was issued to a particular set of components (air supply line, breathing tube, face piece).
Sadly, in many shops, the owner is in compliance by providing an approved air-supply respirator system to protect employees against the hazards of isocyanate catalyzed resins, but the manly-man techs won’t wear it. The story I hear is that dragging the extra hose around is a hassle and they can’t see clearly through the goggles or face piece. So rather than take minimal and simple steps to protect their own health, they take their chances.
On behalf of your current or future grandchildren, show a little common sense and do what you can to stay healthy in a dirty, dusty business. Establish a “culture of safety” in your shop and insist your techs wear the properly chosen and fitted safety equipment. Their families thank you.
Writer Mark Clark, owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa, is a well-known industry speaker and consultant. He’s been a contributing editor to BodyShop Business since 1988.
Comments? Fax them to (330) 670-0874 or e-mail them to BSB editor Georgina K. Carson at [email protected].