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Your Guide to Body Shop Safety

Creating a culture of safety in your body shop can increase productivity, make your employees happier and keep you out of trouble. So what are you waiting for?

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Mark R. Clark is owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa. He’s a popular industry speaker and consultant and is celebrating his 32nd year as a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

Collision repair is a dangerous business. There are lots of opportunities to get hurt in the body shop.

My experience says that a cut is the most common shop injury. All those sharp metal edges getting pushed and wiggled around make for some bloody fingers and arms. I contend that the next most likely injury results from foreign matter getting stuck in a technician’s eyes. Grinding, sanding, cutting and even blowing compressed air put lots of ugly particles up by your face.

Burns certainly loom large as well. While a 9-inch grinder spinning at 6,000 RPM will get the metal hot enough to hurt you, welding the metal at 6,500°F will get it hot enough to scar you. Throw in all the various kinds of “industrial asthmas” that are caused by unprotected exposure to solvents, adhesives, toxic dust, body filler particles and killer paint hardeners, and it’s a wonder anyone survives.

Big Payoff

Maintaining a safe work environ- ment pays off big, and not just with a warm fuzzy for the owner who gets the satisfaction of knowing he or she is keeping his or her valuable resources safe and sound. People are happier at work if their lives aren’t in danger, and production efficiency goes up if everyone spends their time there rather than in the emergency room being treated for their most recent injury.

I interviewed six body shops around the country that were recommended to me because of their sound safety practices. Even some of these safety-conscious folks admitted there was more they could do to protect their employees from harm.

Concerned management and safety-minded employees working together can make any workplace healthier. All sorts of outside influences are brought to bear on body shop safety, too, from federal or state OSHA representatives who can fine shops for non-compliance to workman’s comp and garagekeeper’s liability insurers, who can reward shops with lower premiums.

Everyone I spoke to said that truly safe body shops have a real, not just verbal, commitment to making the workplace safer – starting at the top. Owners and managers must clearly explain and enforce their rules about clean work areas, supporting cars on lifts properly, wearing the appropriate protective gear all the time and taking care daily to stay safe from injury.

Prepping the Newbies

In most of these shops, newly hired employees undergo a formal orientation before they begin work. Typically, they’re also issued an employee manual, as long as 20 pages, that spells out conditions of employment, additional benefits, and safety requirements and expectations. Virtually all my interviewees said they couldn’t depend on word of mouth and felt that written safety policies and programs are the only way to ensure everyone gets the same message. Don’t let employees make the choice about which safety gear is legal or appropriate or when it should be worn. Write it down!

One of the most complete programs was described by Jennifer Howell, human resources manager at Collex Collision Experts, based in Clinton Township, Mich., and operating 11 shops in Michigan and three in Florida.

“We take all new-hire employees through a three-hour orientation to review our company requirements and explain safety expectations,” said Howell. “In addition, they come in one day before they begin work to meet their co-workers, tour the facility and see the location of the exits, fire extinguishers, eye wash stations and all other safety gear.”

All six shops interviewed have new employees sign paperwork acknowledging receipt of the employee manual. There’s a lesson here, in that a documented paperwork trail is useful in any number of employee interactions. Interested parties want to see proof of training completed, performance evaluations, corrective warnings and congratulatory commendations. Make sure your shop has recorded everything employee-related on paper.

But safety is an ongoing process, which is why the shops I interviewed all hold regular shop safety meetings, typically once a month. One shop, however, holds them quarterly. The meetings often last just 15 to 20 minutes, and specific discussion topics are often taken from the shops’ insurance carriers, the local NADA group, third-party safety consultants or various vendors’ Web sites. Or the shops simply address safety failings observed during the prior month. The most common topics include: slips and falls, respirator use, reading and locating material safety data sheets (MSDS), keeping lids on containers, safe lifting practices (both human and mechanized) and always wearing safety glasses.

“We make it common practice for all involved in the repair process to wear safety glasses,” said Christopher Sechrist, operating partner at Apple Collision Center in York, Pa. “However, there are instances where we must remind our employees about the consequences of not wearing them.”     

Who Buys?

Because eye protection is so important, every shop I spoke with purchases individual technician’s prescription safety glasses if required.

This brings up the issue of who should be buying all the safety gear. The law is very clear that, as an employer, you are responsible for providing your employees with protection from all hazards they’re exposed to at work. The shops I spoke with purchase:

• safety glasses

• ear plugs
 
• particle masks
 
• charcoal respirators
 
• paper suits

• head socks
 
• disposable gloves
 
• lifting belts
 
• knee pads

• welder’s hoods

• leather welding capes.

While these expenditures are shop expenses, they’re not legitimate “paint and material items” and should not be lumped in with those goods. Many shops complain regularly to their paint jobbers that they’re spending too much for paint and material. Safety items are not paint and material.

Many shops have two or more accounts with their PBE jobber: one for paint and material (sandpaper, filler, undercoats, color, solvents, glue, pull pins, compound, buffing pads, etc.) and another for safety gear, booth filters, tool and equipment repair parts, and other overhead items. While separating these items doesn’t change the total amount due the jobber, it makes unwinding the bill each month much easier. Other safety items that are just as important but are purchased less often include: 

• air-supply respirator systems

• jack stands

• safety chains

• tool guards

• bench grinder shields

• eye wash stations

• First Aid kits

• unfrayed extension cords.
    
Breathe Easy

Aside from protecting eyes, most of the conversations I had revolved around safe breathing.

Respirators fall into three basic categories, with several permutations in each class. Shops must provide the correct mask, but techs must wear the proper types and sizes to be protected – simply storing the correct respirator in the toolbox doesn’t help. A compliant dust or particle mask has two straps to hold it in place and will trap airborne dust and particles. Often rated as N95, they are not resistant to oil and will trap 95 percent of airborne particles. A negative pressure charcoal filter respirator will stop organic vapors and spray mists if it fits properly and if the filters are fresh. Some primer, paint mists and welding fumes can be effectively filtered with this type of respirator. A positive-pressure, air-supplied respirator is preferred when using isocyanate catalysts because no toxic vapors can be inhaled due to compressed air escaping out from the face piece and thus not allowing surrounding air inside. Determining the proper respirator for the hazard, providing it to the employee and test fitting it for proper size are all the responsibility of the employer.

Test fitting vapor-trapping charcoal respirators is done at least annually in every shop I spoke with. Several shops routinely test all techs twice a year, and one shop tests within the first 90 days of any new hire. Some people use an environmental specialty firm to do the tests, but everyone mentioned 3M as a valued participant in this process.

The plastic, silicone or rubber face pieces are typically sized as small, medium and large. Proper fit is a matter of the face piece conforming to the shape of the tech’s skull. Because these are negative-pressure (air is pulled into the mask when you inhale) devices, any gap where the mask meets the face will let air bypass the charcoal filters and slip in unfiltered.

Test fitting typically involves strapping on the mask and then a containment hood. A mist with a distinctive odor is introduced into the hood, and if the technician can smell the odor, the mask doesn’t fit properly. While the odor may be pungent (banana oil) or noxious (makes you gag) to the technician being tested, it’s still better than being continually exposed to solvents and catalysts found in the body shop.

Most of the shops I spoke with require their technicians to be clean shaven. No charcoal filter respirator will work effectively if the face piece won’t fit snugly and directly against the user’s skin. Air takes the path of least resistance, and there’s much less resistance through beard hair than a charcoal filter.

As with every other safety issue, shops should document the testing on paper: who was tested, when, how and the results.
    
Don’t Forget Filters

How often the charcoal filters must be changed is a variable and difficult issue. Unfortunately, there are no charcoal filters that will signal when they’re exhausted. One shop I spoke with uses organic vapor monitors, which techs wear on their shirts. After a set time period, the monitors are sent in for analysis to determine the exposure to various chemicals. Based on the results, the shop changes charcoal filters on a set and published schedule.

“We replace every tech’s charcoal filters at least every two weeks, more often if they request it,” said Mike Clark, production manager at Cox Chevrolet Body Care Center in Bradenton, Fla. “Even if they keep them in a closed container (which keeps air from activating the charcoal), we issue them a new set.”

Sadly, many shops haphazardly change charcoal filters only when the tech smells something. The odor threshold is many times the harmful limit, so by the time you can smell solvent, the harm is being done. Ask for help from a qualified testing vendor to establish a safe and appropriate interval to replace either the charcoal filters or the entire respirator.

Avoid the problem altogether by using a TC-19C (NIOSH standard) positive-pressure air-supply respirator. Available as a half mask, full face or hood unit, it works whether you’re clean shaven or not and will eventually pay for itself in savings on charcoal filter cartridges.

Some units use a separate, oil-less air compressor, some use a wall-mounted filter and CO monitor (oil in the shop compressor can become hot and produce carbon monoxide), and some are contained in a belt-mounted backpack. Painter’s complaints about wearing air supplies range from having to drag another hose around the booth, to the weight of the backpacks, to the glare off the face shields.

One shop owner I spoke with tried several brands and designs until he found one the painters liked. He used a clever ploy by doing all the trials in the heat of summer so the cool air blowing through the masks would be that much more appealing to the painters. Air-supplied masks are now willingly used by everyone who paints in that shop.
   
Clear the Clutter

Safe work spaces are also free of clutter and obstacles. Slips and falls happen much more often when techs must walk over, around and through discarded parts, multiple air hoses, wads of masking paper and other shop jumble.

“We have found that maintaining a clean and clutter-free 5-S work area (sort, straighten, shine, standardize, sustain) not only makes for a safer workplace but a more productive one, too,” said Chris Norris of Bob Sight Collision Center in Lees Summit, Mo.”

Not to mention that employees like working in a well-lit and clean environment, and customers are favorably impressed when your shop looks like you take care of it. They extrapolate that you’ll take good care of their vehicles, too.

Clutter also prevents you from making a safe getaway upon experiencing a fire or weather emergency. Formal fire and emergency weather arrangements are part of a comprehensive safety plan. Monthly shop safety meetings are perfect opportunities to discuss the locations of the building exits, fire extinguishers, eye wash stations, hazardous spill containment and First Aid kits.

Only a couple of my interviewees have a written plan for how to leave the building, where to gather outside to make sure everyone is out, what to do if there’s smoke in the shop or other emergency procedures. When the tornado blows the roof off the shop or flames chew through the ceiling, it’s a poor time to be discussing a solution. Make a fire drill the topic of your next shop safety meeting and be safely prepared for the worst.
    
Where’s the Culture?

This is my 40th year in our industry. I’ve been inside hundreds of body shops, but sadly, few of them have a culture of safety.

When asked by their worker’s comp insurance carriers if they have safety procedures in place, everyone says “yes.” When inspected for compliance with OSHA regulations, everyone promptly corrects the noted violations. The owners buy all the required safety gear, but unless there is a “culture of safety,” only a few techs regularly wear the gear and management seldom enforces the rules.

The other complicating factor is that we’re a manly man’s industry. I’ve been in many shops where the older techs ridicule new guys for protecting themselves. But the techs who always have their eyes, ears and noses covered do so because they value their own health and well being. What on Earth is wrong with that?    

While every shop will say it practices safety, I can tell in a minute’s walk-through if it really does. How? The techs are all geared up and, more tellingly, remind each other to take care. As David Stewart of Stewart Auto Repair in Winter Haven, Fla., said, “I think the true test of real shop safety practices is when the technicians look out for each other and remind their co-workers to put on their safety gear.” I agree!

One way to help your shop become safer is to have the owner or manager walk through the entire facility once a week, looking not at the work in process like they always do but at the safety practices. Does everyone have on safety glasses? Are the cars on the lifts locked in place with the safety catch? Are the shields on the bench grinder clear enough to actually see through? (If not, the techs will push them up and out of the way.) Does the guy using the plasma cutter have a leather welding cape to protect from spatter? Does the tech welding in a blind area have a spotter watching for sparks and fire? Are the extension cords frayed and missing the ground prong? Are the lids actually on the cans and drums that require lids?

If you take this stroll every week and ask that the violations be corrected while you wait, there will be fewer issues the next week and the following week until you really do get a safer shop.

Help Is On the Way

Where can you go for assistance in making your shop safer? The Feds would like to help. Visit www.osha.gov and, under the A-Z index, click on Autobody Repair & Refinishing for a great overview of specific requirements and suggested safety policies.

Also, there are several Web-based safety-related tests you can have new employees take as part of their orientation. Ask your state labor department if a non-enforcement inspector can stop by for a consultative visit.

Several shops I interviewed subscribe to a health and environmental service. Often Internet-based, this service allows the user to log on, ask specific questions, find discussion topics, locate sample forms and print documents.

While several auto refinish paint manufacturers offer some safety help (at least one major paint company has online training and testing for back safety, chemical handling, spills and leaks, fire extinguisher use, etc.), the undisputed industry-based safety help leader can be found at solutions.3M.com. Every one of my interviewees has used 3M for respirator testing.

Your worker’s compensation insurance carrier is likely to have people on staff to help make your shop safer, too. Some of the shops have to undergo a mandatory walk-through by their insurance company inspector each year  to be renewed.
    
Communication Is Key

Your shop will be safer if you make your expectations very clear to all employees. Ensure that open communication about safety is welcome. If the last guy who went to the owner and suggested a safety change was laughed out of the office, it’s unlikely anyone else will come forward.

The whole issue may be summed up best by Les Blizzard, owner of St. Louis Street Auto Body in Springfield, Mo.: “Safe work practices are like seat belt use in the car. Once it becomes a habit, you do it without thinking about it.”

Your shop may have technicians (of any age) who refuse to wear safety glasses and respirators (prevention for the two biggest hazards) unless they’re required to do so as a condition of employment. But looking the other way and letting them skate by is a huge risk. When they’re injured, there will be no shortage of TV-ad lawyers willing to sue the shop owner for damages.

As importantly, being blind in one eye and having poor lung function doesn’t make for a very productive employee. I can attest to the fact that the most productive body shops I’ve ever been in have strict safety requirements, and non-compliance is a swift ticket out the door.

Establish, write down and enforce a legal safety policy in your shop today. You can stay out of court and your employees will see their grandchildren grow up. Requiring safety gear will make your shop more, not less, productive. There’s no question your employees will be healthier.


What’s a “Mod” Rate?

Who cares about shop safety? Let the techs explode, catch fire or contract asthma – we’ll just hire some new ones.

Well, here’s a reason to care. Ever heard of an experience modification rating? A favorable “mod” rate can lower your workman’s compensation premium by thousands of dollars. All worker’s comp carriers report their loss experience with every business they underwrite to the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI). Using that data, your current – or any other – worker’s comp insurance company can modify your premium rate based on your firm’s exact injury claim history.

The foundation of experience modification is a safe workplace. Oil leaks can cause slips and falls; take steps to promptly clean up all spills. Breathing solvent and isocyanate vapors can cause industrial asthma; take steps to insure everyone is wearing the correct respirator. Avoiding injury is a good thing for your employees and a good thing for your worker’s comp insurance rates.

The “mod” rate for your business is a number that the annual insurance premium is multiplied by to lower, or raise, the regular coverage cost. Imagine the worker’s comp premium for a business was $10,000 per year. This figure will be based on the predicted and historic losses per employee for your specific industry. The first year your company is in business, the “mod rate” is 1.0. Over the next four years, your losses, or lack of claims, can raise or lower the premium significantly. If your specific loss history was better than average, the insurance company may modify your rate by multiplying by a number less than one. So, in the second year, your mod rate may be .95, and then .9 in the third. By the fourth year, with a better than average safety record, you could see a mod rate as low as .65. And yes, I would be all for paying $6,500 for the annual premium instead of $10,000!

The insurance companies promulgate their mod rates based on all premiums collected and all losses paid. You could have your rate increased, too. In one example, one of the industries with the highest worker’s comp claims is meat packing. Its mod rate could be as high as 2.75; it pays $27,500 for its coverage!  As I understand the process, the insurance company is not as concerned about a single catastrophic loss as the frequency of the claims. Anyone can have an accident, but having recurring accidents in your workplace is a big red flag.

Create a safe environment by establishing, communicating and enforcing good safety practices. In body shops, insurers look for things like employees who participate in company safety councils, good key control (not everyone can move cars), good lot control (no one in the work areas except assigned workers) and people suited up with safety glasses, gloves, protective clothing and respirators. Safety has financial rewards; make sure your shop can reap them. – Thanks to Bob Tschippert of Zurich North America for his help. Zurich NA is an insurance-based financial services provider with a global network focus on North America and Europe.


Writer Mark Clark, owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa, is a well-known industry speaker and consultant. He’s celebrating his 22nd year as a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

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