Friday, 31 March 2006 09:00

How a safer, healthier workplace can be in our future

Written by Dick Strom

A recent study of Washington state collision shops, conducted by Safety & Health Assessment & Research for Prevention (SHARP), produced information (Technical Report 69-4-2005) that everyone within the collision, insurance, and related support industries needs to know. SHARP believes that many work-related injuries and illnesses are preventable, and that a safe and healthy workplace will in-crease production, lower absenteeism, and make Workers' Compensation insurance more affordable. 

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Though supplied-air respirators are recommended by state and federal agencies, 29% of respondents stated that their shop doesn't supply these respirators because the painters do not like them. An additional 23% stated that though their shop already has supplied-air respirators (most shop owners know that supplied-air respirators offer the best protection against isocyanates), their painters refuse to wear them, blaming interference with visual sharpness and mobility while painting.

Employees may dictate work practices

It was observed that the owners of some shops allowed valued production employees to dictate work practices, even though some of these were not the most protective. Painters' selection and use of gloves and respirators was one such area, suggesting that painters may be regarded as the "quarterbacks" of the collision repair shop; some business owners will not discipline or place excessive pressure on key employees for fear that they may leave.

While revealing that application of two-part clear coats was primarily conducted in enclosed spray booths, the survey discerned that 9% of shops reported performing paint-related operations in prep stations, and 3% stated that painting occurred on the shop floor. SHARP visits to shops revealed that such out-of-booth painting operations were sometimes separated from the rest of the production area only by movable plastic curtains, some with no local source of supplied-air.

Though the study determined some ventilated prep stations may provide sufficient air flow velocities to protect painters from isocyanate overexposures, Washington State's workplace health and safety regulations dictate that spray finishing with flammable materials may be conducted only in approved spray booths: Spraying outside of approved spray booths may also violate fire codes.

Forty-six percent of survey respondents reported spraying two-part clear coats in downdraft booths; 26% in prefabricated crossdraft booths, 20% in home-built crossdraft booths, and 10% in semi-downdraft booths. Other studies have determined that downdraft booths, followed by semi-down draft booths, produce the lowest particulate exposures for workers, and that prefabricated crossdraft booths, followed by home-built crossdraft booths produced the highest exposures for workers.

The study revealed that 64% of shops with a production area in excess of 5,000 square feet had a downdraft booth, whereas only 36% of shops smaller than 5,000 square feet had a downdraft booth. It further determined that 70% of smaller shops had home-built crossdraft booths compared to 30% of larger shops, likely reflecting that smaller shops are more likely to build booths to fit the constraints of their physical building, than to purchase downdraft booths. This finding - that smaller shops are less likely to have the more protective downdraft booths - has significant implications concerning worker exposure to harmful chemicals.

Stronger communication needed

Another goal of the survey was learning about the health & safety perceptions and needs of business owners and managers. It revealed that the majority of shop owners received their health & safety information from Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), manufacturers and suppliers, and trade journals. From SHARP interviews with shops it was determined that often the poor work practices of shops (latex rather than nitrile gloves being one) are perpetuated by misinformation provided by some of these sources, and that only 25% of shops contracted with a private health & safety consultant.

But most amazing to me was the finding that only 1% of shops reported receiving pertinent health-related information from the Washington Department of Labor and Industries (L&I), the agency tasked with administering workplace health & safety regulations and providing consultation services. While specialized training may be required to develop effective safety and health programs, the study seems to indicate that many workers aren't receiving and implementing this information. And very few are receiving it from L&I.


Intervention strategies

The SHARP Needs Assessment study acknowledges many challenges faced by the collision repair industry: Preventing occupational illness and injury is often more difficult for small businesses because these generally have few safety and health resources, cannot easily hire staff devoted to safety and health activities, and often are less adept at identifying occupational hazards and conducting surveillance of such. This study revealed that many collision repair shops had significant deficiencies in their respiratory protection programs, especially with regard to respirator selection and fit-testing.

Maintenance of supplied air respirators and their compressor systems was also lacking, as was the lack of use of nitrile gloves, especially when handling isocyanates, lacquer thinners, and other solvents. The survey also noted that spray booths often failed to provide sufficient airflow to protect workers, due to inadequate filter change-out schedules, accumulation of debris in exhaust filters, or mechanical problems (lack of spray booth maintenance increases exposure to airborne contaminants and may increase costs because of inefficient heating, cooling, movement of air, and dust contamination).

The study further observed inconsistent use of hearing and eye protection, and that workers are sometimes exposed to musculoskeletal injuries resulting from awkward postures, forceful exertion, and repetitive motion. Interestingly, the study concluded that many of the "best practices" necessary to protect collision repair workers from these hazards have been recognized for decades, the relatively recent finding that isocyanates penetrate latex gloves being one exception.

This study does caution "…the mechanisms by which this [study] information is transferred to these [collision repair shop] workplaces must [take into] account for the financial and social characteristics of this [collision] industry. Any outreach effort must recognize that the social organization of work within small businesses is extremely complex and poses unique challenges to developing effective intervention strategies."

The suggestion is that most owners of small workplaces have very little involvement in activities related to workplace health and safety, and strive to sustain good working relationships with valued employees. A strong sense of community was noted within many shops, some shop owners expressed considerable concern for the health and well-being of their employees since many of these businesses are family-owned and operated.

Industry needs intervention strategy

The SHARP survey suggests that our industry would benefit from an intervention strategy based on "social marketing" (the application and adaptation of commercial marketing concepts to the planning, development, and implementation of programs that are designed to bring about behavior change to improve the welfare of individuals or their society). Using this approach, the barriers and benefits to adopting sustainable safe work practices, as laid out in this study, would be identified as the foundation of an educational and technical assistance campaign that utilizes the behavior change tools from social science research to promote information, attitudes, values and behaviors.

Information from prominent owners and managers, business associations, trade groups, and other industry leaders would be used in this intervention, to ensure that these efforts are meaningful and relevant to shop personnel. Collaborating with trade organizations to disseminate this information is critical, considering that 95% of respondents subscribe to at least one trade journal.

Providing on-site technical assistance is also an essential component of any outreach strategy, and efforts would be made to promote collective effort services between local, state, and federal agencies, trade associations, retrospective rating programs, and other stakeholders, in providing low cost health and safety services.

The study concludes that, though the solutions to protecting workers have been documented for several decades, this information has not been delivered effectively to Washington State's collision repair industry. Using social marketing strategies and financial incentives would likely be an effective means to improve workplace health and safety in the collision repair industry.

Accurate study

It would be in the best interests of all collision shops across this country to recognize that the findings of this survey quite accurately reflect actual collision shop workplace deficiencies, and that the goal of certain regulatory agencies is to virtually eliminate workplace illness, injury, and death… a goal we can all appreciate.

The sincerity of SHARP's toxicologist, Steve Whittaker, is beyond doubt. Whittaker spent considerable time with us and many other shops in order to accurately assess the many, complex, and underlying problems that hold the collision industry back from having a spotless health and safety record, and then to compile this information in their technical report.

For answers or further information on what SHARP is doing in the collision repair industry, or to receive a copy of this report, contact Steve Whitaker at (360) 902-5663, via E-mail: whiw235@LNI.wa.gov, or visit www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Research/HazardousChem/AutoIcn (additional material will be added to this site as it becomes available). SHARP is currently reviewing workers' compensation data in addition to historical WISHA (Washington state's OSHA) data to help the collision industry focus on reducing costs associated with workers comp claims and WISHA citations.

I'd like to see the findings from reports such as this result in bringing about change from within the collision industry, motivating us each to clean up our act, through the efforts of repairer associations and the collision trade press. Hopefully this information will trickle down also to the insurance industry, which does have a responsibility to promote and help subsidize worker health and safety since, in the end, it would seem that they too would greatly benefit from a safer workplace

Dick Strom, Modern Collision Rebuild, 9270 Miller Road, NE, Bainbridge Island, Washington 98110; (206) 842-3621; e-mail: moderncol@qwest.net.