Assessing OSHA’s New National Emphasis Program

July 1, 2014
Brandon Thomas, COO of GMG Envirosafe, talks about OSHA’s new emphasis on inspections for isocyanate exposure

In June of 2013, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a new three-year emphasis program on isocyanate exposure, which can lead to respiratory diseases and allergic reactions. The program targets industries, including body shops, that have potentially high risk of isocyanate exposure. The new program will result in more inspections of body shops throughout the next three years.

It’s something that shops need to prepare for to avoid potentially costly fines, says Brandon Thomas, COO of compliance consulting company GMG Envirosafe.

Thomas, who has done extensive research on the subject and given presentations on it during past Collision Industry Conference (CIC) meetings, discusses the effects of isocyanate exposure, the new emphasis program and what shop owners can do to prepare.

What are isocyanates and why are they harmful?

Isocyanates are highly reactive chemicals. It’s the umbrella of terms for a handful of individual chemicals that are in the paint process. The issue with isocyanates is that they are very powerful irritants to the respiratory tract and mucous membranes. They are precursors to long-term respiratory disease, chronic bronchitis, as well as isocyanate sensitization, which is a very violent allergic reaction that your body has when it is exposed to these chemicals.

They are not currently known to cause cancer in humans. But that’s a big misconception. There have been studies that tie exposure of isocyanates to cancer in animals, but there is currently no human testing.

Isocyanates are predominantly found in the clear coat process, however there are some paint lines that have them in primers, sealers and basecoats. You really have to look at your safety data sheets to have a good handle on what chemicals have isocyanates in them.

The concern, obviously, is that they’re also in the OE finish. If you’re sanding or grinding, you can reintroduce isocyanates in the body or in the prep departments, even if you’re not spraying.

Why is isocyanate exposure becoming more of a focus for OSHA?

It’s not one single event. But OSHA’s counterpart in Great Britain did a study looking at body shop environment paint sprayers and found that the overall risk is 80 times the average occupational asthma for industrial workers.

What is the national emphasis program?

It’s a three-year inspection program of 10 targeted industries that have high levels of isocyanate exposure. OSHA announced it in June of last year, so it’s going to run through the end of 2016. They launched a specific training program and enforcement program for this.

This is not a new regulation, it’s an enforcement of an existing regulation. If a shop has been through an OSHA inspection before, this is going to be different. The inspector is going to spend a lot more time in the shop, they’re going to do a lot of air monitoring and wipe sampling.

They’re trying to get an understanding of how bad the isocyanate exposure is in these different industries and if there’s a possibility that we need to do more to make sure our workers are protected.

How many shops will be inspected? Can any shop be inspected, in theory?

What they’ve done is establish, for every area office across the country, a minimum quota for each of these emphasis industries. Based on the material I’ve reviewed, there are eight or 10 industries that they’re looking at and they have to do three inspections per industry per year. That’s a minimum quota.

The inspections are completely random. The old adage that if you’re small you don’t have to worry about this is gone. They’ve inspected some very small businesses.

But what I explain is that their goal is to make the biggest bang for their buck in a three-year program. So if there are industries doing a very poor job, they’re going to focus more of their energy on that industry, rather than only doing the minimum quotas. Some of the inspectors we’ve talked to have been in more than three shops in the last six months, let alone a 12-month period, because they didn’t like what they found.

What does the inspection process consist of?

It’s going to start with an opening conference with the owner. They’re going to want to meet with that person to go over the chemical inventory list, not just the paint product. They want to see safety data sheets that correspond to all of those and the current hazard assessment that has to be done every year.

Then they’ll dive into the personal protection equipment (PPE) processes, training, requirements and what’s given out to employees.

The next part of the interview is the record keeping and injury logs. Shops have to keep a five-year history of OSHA 300 logs. They’re going to be looking for any documented occupational illness tied to isocyanates. If they are concerned about the lack of paperwork, they may start to look at medical records of the employees.

They will conduct interviews with employees. They’re looking to ask them about their position, where they work, PPE requirements, and any symptoms. Have you ever broken out into hives? Have you noticed you have shortness of breath or convulsion when you’re at work or around these chemicals? Is it hard to breathe? They’re going to look for reported illnesses, unreported illnesses, and undiagnosed illnesses.

After the interviews, they’ll spend at least two full days in the shop, maybe not back to back but over the course of a couple weeks. They’re going to watch processes, look at air samples, wipe surfaces down, and wipe down the hands, forearms and necks of the employees.

Finally, they can go anywhere after that. They’re not restricted to the paint department. They can look at body, mechanical and paint.

What is an example of a possible violation?

They’ve got serious citations that have already been broken out for this program. The average fine for a body shop has been $5,000. Obviously any other OSHA citation can be on the table but these are the four we expect:

1. The exposure is too high. OSHA has thresholds for what the airborne exposure and the surface contaminant exposure can be and, if you’re too high, that would be a serious citation. That would come up if a shop isn’t’ spraying in a booth and they have poor ventilation.

2. No hazard communication program. They haven’t done a hazard assessment, they haven’t had training, they have no respiratory training.

3. Not using or incorrectly using PPE. If someone is not using the right respirator, glove or safety glasses, those would be concerns.

4. Improper hygiene. For example, a painter that has a full beard and is wearing a respirator over the top of it. That’s not doing anything for that person.

What happens if a shop is in violation or cited?

The shop is subject to further inspection, typically up to 24 months after the initial inspection. Then they’ll receive some paperwork that’s documentation of the violations and the dollar amounts of the penalties associated with those.

There will also be an explanation of what the shop’s next steps need to be. Whatever the inspector wants to see to correct the isocyanate exposure, that’s what’s going to need to happen to make the scrutiny go away.

What can shop owners do to prepare? What steps should they take?

They really need to re-engage with their staff. A lot of times, painters and owners have good intentions and they have a good idea of what’s supposed to happen, but they get lax in execution. For example, a painter will wear a respirator in a booth but not safety glasses because he can’t see.

Next, look at your processes. If you’re spraying outside of a booth or prep station, you could be in for a big violation if those chemicals have isocyanates. Even if the painter might have PPE on, the person working next to them might not. They’re still being exposed to those chemicals.

I would spend some time in the paint department looking at how good my people are at wearing the PPE at every point they need to, what my processes are, and the risk levels to the other people in the area.

Finally, paperwork is critical with this: hazard assessments, safety training sheets, data records, signoffs from the employees that they’ve gotten respirators, respirator changeout logs, vapor-monitoring analysis. There’s a pretty long list of paperwork that needs to be documented.

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