Unbelievably, it’s been 15 years since the federal government began to regulate, in earnest, the waste generated by body shops. During that time, I think we’ve all done a heck of a job controlling the waste we produce. And, incidentally, some of the same things the government wants you to do to save the planet and your health are also good for your bottom line.
I’ve been around so long that I can tell you from personal experience just how far we’ve come — and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. But it’s not all going to be a pat on the back. I’m also going to cover what some shops aren’t doing when it comes to compliance.
The Year Was 1976 …
You’ll remember that the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976 set in place rules and regulations to ensure the Earth would be a user-friendly place for our descendants. (Congress was specifically trying to prevent another ground-waste catastrophe like the one in Love Canal, N.Y.) Prior to 1976, the regulation of collection and disposal of hazardous material was handled at state and local levels. In ’76, however, congress determined the potential problems were national in scope and empowered the Federal Environmental Protection Agency to regulate hazardous-waste practices from generation to disposal.
These first rules and regulations were directed at large chemical companies that had the potential to generate tons of environmentally unfriendly waste. In 1984, RCRA was amended to lower the limits of hazardous-waste production, and instead of just regulating the big guys, the EPA lowered the limit from 1,000 kilograms of hazardous waste per month to 100 kilograms per month. One hundred kilograms is about 220 pounds or roughly half of a 55-gallon drum of waste per month. This redefined small-quantity-generator level encompassed most body shops. And even those that generate less than 220 pounds per month are covered under most of the same regulations as "conditionally exempt" small-quantity generators.
I’ve been in the industry since the late 1960s, and I’ve watched many gallons of used thinner dumped into the cracks in the parking lot or poured around the edge of the shop building to kill weeds. Many trash-drum fires were very successfully ignited by pouring some leftover paint onto the masking paper and tossing on a match. The solvent-soaked trash burned really well.
It helps to keep in mind that the EPA folks weren’t so concerned about the two quarts of spent solvent that was dumped on the parking-lot curbs. But they were rightly concerned about the three or four 55-gallon drums of solvent waste poured onto the soil near a pond or, worse yet, poured down the city’s storm drain.
While the process of compliance has been confusing, time consuming and expensive, the good news is that we do a pretty good job with our waste these days.
Prior to ’84 and ’85, the only contact most body shops had with a "government official" was the semi-annual visit from the fire department. And the firemen only wanted some idea of what their risks would be if they had to respond to a fire call at that body shop. Flagrant safety violations might have garnered a fine, but nobody threatened a $10,000-per-day jolt for non-compliance. Once the EPA was empowered to draft and enforce rules, however, that risk became very real.
The EPA and You
The EPA identifies waste by specific chemical names and by its characteristics. Waste streams that are ignitable, corrosive, reactive or toxic qualify for special treatment.
The EPA considers a waste ignitable if it has a flash point below 140 degrees F. (Most auto paints and solvents have a flash point below 50 degrees F.) A waste is corrosive if it has a pH either low or high enough to corrode one-quarter of an inch within certain specified parameters, and a waste is reactive if it will undergo an unstable or violent change when exposed to another substance. Finally, a waste can be toxic if it contains any heavy metals like arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium or lead. Each waste generator is responsible to determine if his wastes are indeed hazardous.
Once that determination has been made, the generator of the waste is responsible on three fronts. The first front: The generator must store the waste appropriately, and the drums must be marked as containing hazardous waste. There’s no federal provision regarding the size, color or typeface for the label, but some states or the permitted waste hauler may require you to use a certain format. The container must be dated, inspected weekly and kept closed. The EPA wants to prevent the waste within your storage drum from spilling out if the drum is tipped over.
The generator’s second obligation is to manage the waste while it’s in storage on site. For example, the generator must have appropriate equipment to respond to a fire or a spill of the waste. The EPA uses much the same standard for fire-fighting equipment as the local fire inspector does. If your fire extinguishers have passed the last fire inspection, you’ve met the first requirement.
Having a method to contain a possible spill requires specific material. The EPA wants your employees to be trained in what to do, who to call and how to contain any hazardous-waste spill. Several manufacturers offer spill kits for body shops, which typically contain rubber gloves, coveralls, eye protection and something to soak up and confine a liquid spill. You could assemble something suitable by including similar items and carefully locating and identifying them as a spill kit. Be sure to keep the kit close to the waste so it’s handy.
Lastly, a small-quantity generator must ship waste in accordance with EPA guidelines. Most importantly, you must use a waste hauler that’s been permitted by the EPA to transport your waste. Ask to have a copy of your hauler’s permit for your files.
The waste must end up at a facility that has yet another federal permit to treat, store or dispose of it legally. Since 1985, each generator must use a uniform hazardous-waste manifest when sending its waste off site. A manifest is a shipping document that describes the shipment, its destination, the carrier and the shipper. The body shop keeps one copy when the shipment leaves and should receive another copy after the waste reaches the TSD facility. To remain compliant, the body shop owner should have those two copies of every manifest of hazardous waste since 1985 in his possession. Remember, the one who generates the waste is responsible forever. Even if you used a permitted hauler and sent it to a permitted site, you’ll still be assessed your portion of any cleanup costs if there’s ever a problem. But the risk is minimal if you store, manage and ship your waste responsibly.
I can say from visiting body shops from coast to coast that most do a great job of keeping the environment clean and the EPA happy. In most shops, I see the drums marked and secure in the corner, with the spill kit next to them. These shops also do their best to reduce the amount of waste they create. And not only is waste reduction an important part of the EPA’s goals, it’s also good for business.
The government estimates that 70 percent of the total waste generated by all small-quantity generators is from auto service, and used oil is a huge part of this statistic. The EPA estimates body shops generate waste in four areas:
- Surface cleaning, which accounts for 8 percent of our waste;
- Undercoats, 17 percent;
- Topcoats, a whopping 55 percent; and
- Equipment cleaning, 20 percent.
I personally think much more than 20 percent of the typical body shop’s waste is generated from gun cleaning, and an enclosed spray-gun washing machine is still one of the best and easiest ways to reduce solvent waste and save precious labor time. If your gun washer is dirty or otherwise out of commission, clean it, buy a new pump and get it running again. You’ll save waste and, more importantly, time.
Because more than half of the EPA’s estimated body shop waste is generated from painting, reducing the amount of paint you spray by using HVLP guns and thoughtful spray techniques keeps the environment cleaner. Also, mixing only the exact amount of undercoats, paints and clears you’ll need for the repair keeps the waste drum from filling up too quickly — and it saves the body shop thousands of dollars each year. In fact, the Iowa Waste Reduction Center estimates that making some spray technique and mixing changes will save an average shop more than $4,000 a year in material costs, while reducing its VOCs by more than 280 pounds. Both those numbers sound good to me!
From Waste to Well-Being
At the same time the EPA is regulating the waste your body shop generates, the Occupational Safety and Health Act is regulating the well-being of your employees.
It’s been 14 years since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created a rule about hazardous substances in the workplace, and this Hazard Communication Standard — known as the Right-to-Know Law — is the most frequently violated of all OSHA standards.
It may be the most frequently violated, but it sure is hard to argue. After all, who would say that employees don’t deserve to be informed of the health hazards associated with their jobs?
Specifically, the standard deals with health risks posed by any products used to perform work, not just the waste products that concern the EPA — although they sometimes overlap. The Superfund Amendment & Reauthorization Act (SARA) of 1986 required anyone who provided Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) to their employees to also submit an inventory to the appropriate state or local authorities. After all, if it’s potentially harmful to an employee, chances are it won’t be good for the environment either.
Most of the body shops I’m familiar with have a set of MSDS somewhere in the building. This presumes that they have already determined which items within the workplace are hazardous and then requested safety sheets for them — when, in fact, I think many body shops don’t have an up-to-date inventory of the hazardous material they use in collision repair and, therefore, don’t have all the safety sheets they should. If your shop hasn’t recently made a list of the products you use and acquired a current MSDS for each one, you aren’t in compliance.
OSHA also requires you to post signs informing your employees of the hazards they face and their right to obtain information about them. Employers must also develop and implement training programs to further inform their employees. Employees need training on how to read an MSDS, how to perform their jobs safely under normal conditions and what to do in an emergency.
Sounds like a good idea, right? It is. After the employee is harmed or the building burns down, the training won’t do much good.
These training sessions don’t have to be elaborate. Just tell your people what to look out for, how to protect themselves against it and what to do if it all goes to hell.
One portion of the right-to-know regulations that’s often ignored in body shops is the labeling obligation. Imagine that you’ve come to work in my body shop. You want some slow-dry enamel reducer, so the other painter directs you to the ancient 5-gallon can with green overspray on it. Turns out we buy solvent in 55s and pump out 5 gallons per trip. The label was covered over long ago. Later in the day, you need wax and grease remover. We keep that in the 5-gallon can with the blue overspray on it. Tomorrow, however, when the other painter is at lunch, you forget which is which and thin the $100 clear with the blue-speckled can — possibly jeopardizing your health.
You get the idea. The government doesn’t want you to assume that every employee knows all about your secret containers. Better, they figure, to put an accurate label on everything.
Another way many shops are out of compliance is with their mixed paint. If your shop mixes 5 to 6 ounces of color (good for you, by the way) and just puts a strip of masking tape with the color number on it, you’re in error. I had an OSHA inspector tell me that one of the first things he looks at are the leftover cans of color. If they don’t have correct labels, he’s found a violation.
Paint labels are free from your jobber. Get some and identify those cans today. You’ll be in compliance with the federal regulations, and even the new employees will know what’s in each can.
At the same time, have a meeting to train your employees in what they need to know to stay safe. On your shop letterhead, list the date training took place and the topics covered and then have the employees sign off as being present. When the OSHA inspector wants proof that you’ve held the required employee training, you’ll be all set.
Compliance Isn’t a Four-Letter Word
During the last 15 years, it’s sometimes been difficult for shops to remember that these rules and regulations were good ideas. But they were — and are. The Feds just want to preserve the water and air quality for future generations and to keep the present generations safe at work.
Dotting every "i" and crossing every "t" may sometimes seem like a lot of busy work to shop owners — granted, it has created more work — but, even if you don’t agree, there’s not much you can do about it. If you don’t comply, you can be smacked with a large fine. My take, however, is that most body shops are complying. It’s extremely rare to find a shop that dumps its waste out the back door and hasn’t made some effort to educate its employees with an MSDS. If you’re one of the shop owners who’s in compliance, pat yourself on the back.
On the other hand, if you haven’t examined your level of compliance lately, give yourself a swift kick in the butt. Not only will complying save you money by avoiding a nasty fine, you’ll likely save real money by producing less waste and by keeping your employees healthy and hard at work.
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.
If this article has reminded you — or taught you — that your shop may be out of compliance with either EPA or OSHA regulations, free help is available. One stop might be the National Automotive Compliance Assistance Center, which will help you at no cost. The center’s goal is to assist automotive shop owners and technicians in better understanding their environmental responsibilities. You can get information 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by calling (800) GRN-LINK (476-5465). Representatives will fax or mail the information you request using a phone menu system. You can also visit the virtual auto repair shop on the Internet at (www.ccar-greenlink.org). Thanks to a recent grant from the EPA, the center’s current site will be joined shortly by a virtual body shop. Once it’s in place, you’ll be able to point the cursor to a variety of body shop items (like a gun washer or a waste drum) and receive information about compliance on screen. The Iowa Waste Reduction Center — which you can reach at (800) 422-3109 or on the Internet at www.iwrc.org — also has compliance information and can often refer you to someone in your area who’ll provide free compliance advice, without dropping a dime to the federal regulators. Both organizations want nothing more than to reduce the pollution your business creates and to make compliance easier.
It Can Be Done
Still don’t have any idea how people manage to get their shops in complete compliance? Don’t know any shop owners who have? Meet Dennis Schmidt, from Schmidt’s Auto Body in Fresno, Calif., whose shop has been successfully complying with assorted governmental regulations since the beginning.
What exactly do employees do there? For one thing, they try to minimize their generation of liquid waste by using a gun washer, mixing only a few ounces of paint per repair and recycling the liquid waste through their own solvent still. They’ve been at it so long that they’re on their second still; they wore the first one out. Head painter Mike Andres runs the shop’s 5-gallon-size recycler every day and says the second unit is better in every respect than the original still. It’s smaller in size, more durable and does a much better job of cooking out the solvent. And it leaves a hard puck of still bottom to be thrown away. They use the recycled solvent in the gun washer to clean spray guns, and when the solvent loses its clarity and won’t cut the paint film anymore, they have it hauled off site by a permitted hauler recommended by their paint jobber. The permitted hauler calls the shop once each month to schedule a pick up if needed. Because of the still and the careful mixing policy, the shop only has enough waste to qualify for pick up (30-gallon minimum) once every two months. This is a nice savings in waste-hauling fees and gun-washer solvent. (Recycling stills are highly recommended by the EPA as an excellent way to reduce liquid waste and save the body shop money.)
Schmidt and Andres agree that their current paint products (which comply with the Bay Area Rule 42) are much more user friendly than earlier compliant coatings and, as such, help them to create less waste. The rest of the country must soon switch over to lower-VOC-compliant coatings based on the new National Rule, and the good news is that the research on the less-than-friendly low-VOC products has already been done by California painters. The compliant products available today do a great job repairing vehicles, keeping the environment cleaner and maintaining user friendliness.
Another thing Schmidt’s does to stay in compliance: Whenever Schmidt adds a new product to his inventory, he gets a current MSDS from his jobber and adds it into his MSDS binder, which is kept in the office. Much to his credit, Schmidt also has a monthly shop-safety meeting. At these meetings, he covers any new products and health hazards that may be associated with them. During these meetings, employees have been informed of their right to know and been fit tested for respirators. Schmidt has the employees sign off that they were exposed to the information, and he also uses an Employee Training Manual that sets out his shop’s policies on everything from soup to nuts, with a heavy emphasis on safety. Employees also sign off that they’ve read and understood the information in the manual.
"When this all started 15 years ago, I knew I had to follow what was required, but the new rules didn’t make much sense. Looking back on it now, it all makes good sense," says Schmidt, adding that he’s confident his shop is compliant and his employees are as safe as he can make them. There were a bunch of hoops to jump through, he says, but none he couldn’t handle. He sees today that they were all for a good purpose and that none of them crippled his ability to repair cars professionally.
Take a similar tack in your own shop. All those pesky rules were written with good intentions, so try to comply in the same spirit.