Collision Repair

Health and safety in the collision repair industry

SHARP, in partnership with three universities, is conducting prevention research in the collision repair industry. The project is known as the PaintHealthy CollisionRepair study (www.PaintHealthyCollisionRepair.org). The project's goal is to identify gloves and coveralls that protect collision repair spray painters from dermal contact with isocyanates and solvents.

The collision repair industry is an example of a small business sector that faces numerous health and safety challenges. Workers are potentially exposed to a wide range of harmful substances while prepping and painting vehicles such as:

  • Airborne particles.
  • Organic solvents.
  • Paint pigments.
  • Other paint constituents.

Both painters and collision technicians are also potentially exposed to physical hazards while performing tasks such as:

  • Dismantling vehicles.
  • Sanding.
  • Grinding.
  • Painting.

Of particular concern is that finding that painters are at relatively high risk for developing work-related asthma from exposure to isocyanates. Most two-part paints and coatings used in automotive refinishing include an isocyanate-based catalyst or hardener.

Spray painting can generate a great deal of airborne isocyanates that painters and other nearby workers may breathe in if they are not adequately protected.

Workers may also absorb isocyanates into their bodies through their skin. This may occur when workers use bare hands to mix and shoot paint or clean up spills. During spray painting, isocyanates may also be absorbed by unprotected skin at the neck, wrists and on the face.

Asthma is a disease that affects the lungs and makes it increasingly hard to breathe. Workers who become sensitized to isocyanates and develop asthma usually can no longer work with automotive paints.

Isocyanate-exposed workers have died from asthma attacks. New information suggests that isocyanates can cause asthma both through inhaling the chemical and from absorbing isocyanates through the skin.

SHARP's work in the collision repair industry

In 2005 SHARP visited several collision repair shops to gather first-hand information about workplace practices. With input from shop owners, business association officers, researchers and industrial hygienists, we developed a "needs assessment" survey that was mailed to all collision repair shops in Washington State.

The response rate to the survey was 69 percent, suggesting that our survey results are likely representative of Washington State's collision repair industry. Our study found that collision repair in Washington State is a male-dominated industry comprised chiefly of small, non-unionized, family-run businesses.

Many shops face numerous safety and health challenges resulting from a combination of misinformation within the industry, insufficient funds to address workplace health and safety concerns and social barriers to enforcing best practices within the shops. Problems associated with the selection and use of respirators and gloves are likely primarily responsible for isocyanate exposures. We also found that collision repair workers are potentially exposed to many additional chemical and physical hazards that deserve attention.

Read SHARP's Health and Safety in Washington State's Collision Repair Industry: A Needs Assessment (843 KB PDF / 2 min). You may request a paper copy of the report by contacting SHARP.

In 2006 SHARP partnered with the University of North Carolina to study the most significant routes of exposure to isocyanates. Thanks to the cooperation of 25 collision repair shops in Washington State, we evaluated how isocyanates enter the body and whether there are biological markers that can help us understand why some people are more susceptible to asthma caused by isocyanates. Publications from our 2006 field work can be found on the PaintHealthy CollisionRepair website (www.PaintHealthyCollisionRepair.org).

Interlaboratory comparison of isocyanate analytical methods

SHARP is working with the University of Washington's Department of Environmental and Occupational Health to conduct a "round robin" interlaboratory comparison study. This research will critically compare the methods used by different laboratories to analyze the isocyanates present in clear coat hardeners. The interlaboratory protocol (55 KB PDF) was developed with the help of several laboratories with expertise in isocyanate sampling and analysis.

Do the paints you use contain isocyanates?

Any two-part polyurethane coating (primer, basecoat or clearcoat) will likely contain isocyanates. The isocyanates are formulated into the hardener or catalyst. If you are unsure if you are using isocyanate containing paint systems, refer to your Material Data Safety Sheets (MSDSs). The most common isocyanate used in auto refinish coating systems is hexamethylene diisocyanate (HDI). Other isocyanates that may be used are 2,4-toluene diisocyanate (TDI), 4,4'-diphenyl methane diisocyanate (MDI); and isophorone diisocyanate (IPDI).

Getting help

Please contact SHARP for additional information about protecting workers from exposure to isocyanates and other harmful substances.

Request a Consultation. Contact the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) to request a confidential, no-charge safety and health consultation in Washington State.

Collision repair resources

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