The dangers of working with isocyanate paints

Newsletter articles

1 Sep 2010

Employment Studies Issue 12

Andrea Broughton, Principal Research Fellow

Abdrea BroughtonIsocyanate paints have been identified as a major cause of occupational asthma in the UK and are thus a serious potential health hazard in the motor vehicle repair sector, where they are in common use. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has undertaken information and advice campaigns aimed at workers and managers in this sector, warning them of the dangers of these paints. It stresses that the negative health effects can be overcome by following procedures such as always wearing air-fed breathing equipment when spraying the paints, and spraying in a controlled environment, such as a spray booth. One of the main dangers is that the spray mist from isocyanate paints is so fine that it cannot be seen by the naked eye. It is therefore vital that the time it takes for the spray to clear from the spray booth – the clearance time – is calculated, posted clearly on the booth and that workers do not enter the booth without breathing equipment before the clearance time has elapsed.

In 2009, the HSE commissioned research to examine health and safety practices in the motor vehicle repair sector in relation to the use of isocyanate paint spray, focusing in particular on the use of masks and the use of spray booths. The intention was to gather data about practice, in order to gain a view of the overall state of play in relation to the health and safety practices that determine isocyanate use in the sector. The intention was that this will, in turn, make it possible and viable for the HSE to develop a baseline for targeting future embedding activity. IES carried out the research, which was based on a telephone survey of 500 motor vehicle repair bodyshops and visits to 30 bodyshops, during which face-to-face interviews were carried out with bodyshop managers and sprayers.

There has been a major improvement in health and safety practices concerning the use of isocyanate paints in the motor vehicle repair sector over the past 20 years.

Based on the telephone survey and the 30 bodyshop visits, one of the main findings of the research was that sprayers wearing full-face air-fed masks often lift their visors after spraying in order to check the finish. This was a major and fundamental problem and one that appeared to be common to all sizes of business in the sector, not just small businesses. Ways in which to address this threat to good health and safety practices when using full-face masks might include the use of half-face masks, and consideration of whether the visibility of full-face masks can be improved, or whether spray booth lighting can be improved in order to increase visibility.

We also found that there is continuing evidence of misconceptions about the main risks of working with isocyanate paints. Some bodyshop managers and sprayers still believe that the paints can cause cancer or that they can cause asthma through entering the pores of the skin. Any future HSE information campaigns would therefore need to focus on eradicating these myths.

Overall, bodyshop managers tend to rely on external contractors/advisors to carry out technical testing and health surveillance of their employees. They rarely question what these external contractors do, trusting them to do everything to ensure that they comply with the law. A further research recommendation was therefore that, in addition to targeting bodyshop managers, it might be worth targeting information at these external contractors in order to ensure that they are offering correct advice and guidance to bodyshops.

Finally, during the course of the research, we visited a range of bodyshops, ranging from large and well-organised businesses to very small, owner-managed bodyshops. A few of these small bodyshops did not have good health and safety procedures in place. However, it was clear that this was due to a lack of information and knowledge rather than a wilful attempt to skimp on health and safety.

In total, there has been a major improvement in health and safety practices concerning the use of isocyanate paints in the motor vehicle repair sector over the past 20 years, with sprayers and bodyshop managers much more aware of the dangers of the paints and good awareness and implementation of health and safety procedures. In particular, an HSE campaign run a few years ago to increase awareness of the need to establish clearance times of spray booths has yielded success – we found that there was good awareness of and adherance to booth clearance times. Some problems persist, however, as set out above, which will inform future HSE action in this sector.

For more information on this work, please contact Andrea Broughton at IES.