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Hazards in the Automotive Industry: Auto Shop Chemicals

Hazards in the Automotive Industry: Auto Shop Chemicals

Many of us work through our day-to-day life without considering that our professions may have an impact on our health. Some of us may work in environments with a direct impact to our health, while others may not see potential effects as frequently.

For example, if you work in a traditional office environment you may not directly see the impact that sitting at a desk has—but over time you may see changes in your posture or the health of your back. If you work in the automotive profession, for example, mechanics come in contact with many different tools, solutions, and chemicals daily. Working with harsh chemicals and solvents daily can have a great impact on one’s health due to prolonged exposure.

What shop chemicals pose a risk?

There are a wide variety of chemicals present in the automotive industry that can cause serious side effects if workers are not properly protected. The chemical benzene is commonly found in petroleum-based products and has the potential to cause serious long-term effects, like leukemia. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “Long-term exposure [to benzene] may affect bone marrow and blood production. Short-term exposure to high levels of benzene can cause drowsiness, dizziness, unconsciousness, and death.” These are only the effects of one hazardous chemical, let alone the dozens that mechanics come into contact with daily. Repeated exposure to these chemicals can cause permanent damage.

Shop owners and automotive supply distributors need to be aware of the safety concerns associated with chemicals and solvents, as they have the legal responsibility to protect their employees. Isocyanates are a chemical commonly found in automotive paints that pose potential respiratory risks. Without the proper knowledge, mechanics may not be aware of the best ways to avoid exposure and contamination. Side effects can include dermatosis, chemical bronchitis, hives, and even swelling. The Safety & Health Assessment & Research for Prevention (SHARP) program surveyed auto paint shops around the country and discovered that while 85% of their employees’ used gloves while painting, half preferred latex gloves for the comfortable fit and feel. What is often not common knowledge is that latex gloves do not provide barrier protection against isocyanates. The chemical seeps right through the glove. However, because contamination through the glove is not visible, many may be unaware that the gloves are not protecting them.

What can be equally concerning is that some chemicals take a long time to dissipate. This is particularly the case with isocyanates, as they are not water soluble making it challenging to remove from skin or clothing. If one’s hands are covered in these chemicals, they could easily be spread to other tools, people, or areas of the shop. Similarly, the chemicals don’t go away when the employees leave work. Their shoes and clothing may contain contaminants that could put their home and family at risk.

How can mechanics be protected?

In order to keep employees and their loved ones safe, automotive shop owners need to purchase, provide, and educate their employees about the proper personal protective equipment. This starts at the distributor level; automotive distributors need to be aware of the hazards and what equipment works best to protect against potential exposure. For example, latex gloves are a poor choice for the auto industry because latex is an organic material and therefore can be compromised by solvents and other auto shop chemicals. This is why paint chemicals, such as isocyanates, can still contaminate workers even if they are using disposable gloves.

The disposable glove material best suited for the automotive industry is nitrile. The material is comprised from a petroleum base, meaning it holds up well against petroleum-based chemicals such as solvents. Nitrile gloves are also able to conform to the hand, giving users the comfortable fit and feel of latex—but with added barrier protection. The longer workers wear nitrile gloves, body heat warms the material to better conform it to the hand. For even more comfort and protection, raised diamond texture nitrile provides a more breathable material, while also delivering extra grip for those working with tools.

Beyond disposable gloves, additional equipment for added protection is crucial, such as a respirator. Proper shop ventilation is also vital. The risk of exposure for mechanics can be mitigated if the proper steps and precautions are set.

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