In the “good old days,” auto body men knew full well that exposure to volatile compounds on the job might lead to health problems down the road. They worked without respirators anyway and that was pretty much the norm. But, as we focus more and more on workplace safety today, the workplace is safer and healthier for its painters, welders, body techs and even front office personnel. This is especially true with the advent of waterborne paint and all of the technology that protects employees from toxins, fumes and other volatile compounds they encounter every day.
On April 25, the Santa Clara County California Autobody Association (SCC-CAA) held its monthly meeting in San Jose, California. While most of the members in attendance were still buzzing about the defeat of SB 1460, the parts bill sponsored by Senator Leland Yee and opposed by the CAA, 60-plus attendees listened to a presentation by 3M about workplace safety and the company’s air respirators and its associated line of ancillary products.
George Hill, a senior account representative for 3M’s Occupational Health and Environmental Safety Division and a 20-year veteran of the company, talked about respiratory protection health standards and how to adhere to the proper procedures, paperwork and ongoing administration of every collision repairer’s health and safety program. Additionally, Hill showed a series of slides and demonstrated several types of 3M respirators.
Most of what Hill discussed is already being performed at the majority of body shops, but by reminding them and stressing that they need to stay vigilant about their respiratory protection program, problems can be avoided down the road, especially with OSHA.
Making one person responsible and accountable for the program is the first step. “Every shop must have a program administrator designated by the employer to oversee all aspects of the program,” Hill said. “This individual needs to monitor every aspect of the program, including bookkeeping; proper training; medical evaluations; program evaluations; fit testing and, in general, acting as the point person for any issues that might arise.”
Training is one of the main priorities, Hill said. “You can’t just tell your employees that they need to wear respirators and expect them to do it, because some will see the value in it and others won’t. They also should know why they need to wear them and how important it is to their health and well-being.”
By initially assessing the hazards at your shop, owners and managers can determine what respirators to wear and pinpoint the correct inserts to use in them. “You have to regularly sample your air and find out what form it’s in,” Hill said. “Is it a gas, a vapor or a solid, and is there an oxygen deficiency in your shop? That’s a very crucial aspect of the process, because until you know specifically what’s out there, you can’t know what you’re protecting your workers from.”
Particles, including dusts, mists, fumes, smoke, gases and vapors require respirators that contain cartridges that absorb the gases and vapors and filters that block the particles, Hill explained. Regularly changing cartridges is essential and many employees don’t change them when they should, he stated. “To change the cartridge, the employee has to remember that they must leave the contaminated area to change out the old one with a new one. The change-out program is required by CAL-OSHA, which instituted tighter requirements back in 1998.”
Another vital aspect of the program involves ongoing medical evaluations for your employees. “Your people have to be medically checked to determine if they’re healthy enough to even wear the respirators,” Hill cautioned. “The majority pass, and if they don’t pass, their medical data is protected and you can’t see it. Annual re-testing is required, to make certain that the employees’ health conditions haven’t changed in the interim.”
Proper fit testing is also crucial to the safety and protection of your techs. “If a mask isn’t fitting properly, it logically isn’t doing its job,” Hill said. “3M has two fit testing kits that use either bitrex or saccharine. Your employees need to conduct a user seal check each and every time they use the respirators. Over-tightening can cause leaks, so they have to make sure it’s snug and comfortable. And no sharing, ever. Each employee must have their very own respirator that fits correctly.”
One issue Hill discussed in detail is how to fit respirators on employees with facial hair. With several SCC-CAA members in the room with mustaches, it was a evident potential problem. “Do not attempt to fit test workers with facial hair,” he said. “If any facial hair comes between the sealing surface of the respirator and/or the person’s face or interferes in any way with the respirator’s valve function, they have to shave it or use a hood respirator. This also includes dentures, jewelry or anything else that could interfere with the fit of the respirator. And it might be obvious, but never punch a hole in the respirator to smoke a cigarette. I’ve actually seen it happen more than once!”
To find out more about 3M’s respiratory workplace health program and a catalog of all the company’s occupational health and environmental safety products, visit their web site at: www.3M.com/occsafety.