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Which auto shop chemicals pose a risk?
There are a vast variety of chemicals present in the automotive industry that have the risk of potentially serious side effects if workers are not properly protected. Prolonged exposure to harsh chemicals can put one at risk for serious illnesses and diseases. 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.” This is an example of the effects of just one hazardous chemical. Auto technicians are often working with a wide variety of dangerous chemicals at once, such as brake cleaner, paints, fuels, oils, and solvents.
With repeated exposure to these chemicals, the damage can be permanent. If you are not properly protected and frequently exposed to chemicals, the effects can go far beyond physical and potentially become neurological. This makes it crucial to ensure that you are properly equipped with personal protective equipment when working with harsh chemicals as well as working in a ventilated space to minimize inhalation.
Shop owners, managers, and automotive supply distributors need to be aware of safety concerns that come with the automotive chemicals, solutions, and solvents, as it is their legal responsibility to protect their mechanics. Mechanics are familiar with some chemicals such as isocyanates—which can be found in automotive paint, and which poses respiratory risks. However, they may not be aware of the best way to avoid skin exposure and potential contamination. Side effects of exposure to isocyanate can include dermatosis, chemical bronchitis, hives, swelling and worse.
Safety & Health Assessment & Research for Prevention (SHARP) surveyed automotive paint shops around the country and found that 85% of their employees used gloves while painting; half preferred latex gloves for the comfortable fit and feel. However, what was not present was the knowledge that latex gloves do not provide sufficient barrier protection against isocyanates—the chemical seeps through the glove upon contact. As contamination through the glove is not openly visible, those wearing latex may be unaware that their gloves may not provide the protection they need.
What can be equally concerning is the time is takes for some chemicals to dissipate. Isocyanates in particular are not water soluble, making them challenging to remove from skin or clothing. This means the likelihood of cross contamination across the shop is much higher throughout the day as well as in the employees’ home if the chemical is present on their shoes and clothing.
How can auto mechanics be protected?
In order to protect mechanics and their families from these health dangers, automotive shop owners need to ensure they have the proper personal protective equipment for their mechanics. This starts with automotive distributors being aware of workplace hazards and the equipment best suited to protect against the hazards and potential exposure. For example, latex disposable gloves are a poor choice for the auto industry because latex is an organic material and therefore can be broken down by solvents and chemicals—meaning that contamination is highly likely, even if the mechanic is wearing disposable gloves.
The best disposable glove for the automotive industry is nitrile. Nitrile is a petroleum-based material, so it holds up well against the petroleum-based chemicals often used in automotive shops such as solvents. Nitrile gloves still provide mechanics the comfort they need while providing top-of-the-line barrier protection. The material heats up and conforms to the hand the longer the gloves are worn, making the fit and feel comparable to latex. Raised diamond texture nitrile gloves are more breathable than a standard non-textured glove, which can provide mechanics with added comfort. The texture also provides increased gripping capabilities when working with wet tools, materials, or implements.
Beyond disposable gloves, automotive shop owners need to provide additional personal protective equipment such as face masks and respirators. Proper shop ventilation is also key to keeping work environments safe. The risks of exposure to chemicals can be mitigated with the right equipment and precautions in place. Education for both owners and mechanics is the best starting point!