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Coatings Safety On and Off the Job


By Michael Halliwell

As anyone who reads my blog knows, my job involves sampling paints for lead, conducting environmental construction operation plan audits on bridge rehabilitation projects and addressing other health and safety items.

But, like so many others, on the weekend I get out the rollers, brushes and spray cans for DIY and home renovation projects.

paint safety at home
© / alessandroguerriero

Many coatings professionals seem to leave the safety sense they practice at work behind when tackling what seems like a "small" project at home. Are you one of them?

Many of you are coatings professionals—you make your living applying an assortment of coatings to an assortment of substrates. Compared to that, my knowledge base is very limited, so I’m not writing this blog to “preach to the choir” or tell you how best to do your job. You know it better than I do.

Instead, this blog post is aimed at the after-hours stuff we do—the little jobs at home that, although not usually of the same magnitude as industrial and civil projects, still need to be done safely but are easy to pass off as “just a little job.”

The Coatings Professional at Home

Fortunately, many of the household paints out there (i.e., interior and exterior paint sold at the local hardware store) have gone away from the VOC-laden solvents and binder types in favor of water-based latex.

Still, there are a number of products we use at home that still have nasty solvents and binders in them. Examples include aerosol primers and spray paints for painting outdoor furniture and automobiles; specialty paints like touch-up bottles of lacquers for automobiles and appliances; and an assortment of paint strippers, finish removers and other solvent-intensive products for cleaning up.

You may be thinking to yourself, “So, this is little stuff; why would I be worried about that?”

It’s simple: Overexposure and adverse health effects are just as possible with the products we use at home as what we come into contact with at work.

At work, the safety rules say you have to mask up (use proper PPE) in circumstances where you might be exposed. But at home it’s usually a quick job in a small area that will “just take a moment.” It’s the type of thing that is so tempting to just get done with, especially if, say, the garage door is open for ventilation. This is “your time”; why waste time with safety gear for such a little job, right?

The Threat of Overexposure

Well, if you’ve ever finished that little job and had some eye or skin irritation, or that little niggle of a cough, then perhaps you were overexposed.

chemical stripper
© / April McMurray

Many products we use at home still have nasty solvents and binders in them, including aerosol primers and spray paints for painting outdoor furniture and automobiles; touch-up bottles of lacquers for automobiles and appliances; and an assortment of paint strippers and finish removers.

Not a big deal? Well with repeated exposures, you get the same nerve, kidney or liver damage that you could get at work. After all, even household primers, polyurethanes and lacquers can contain heavy metals in the pigments, epichlorohydrin and isocyanates—things for which there are occupational exposure limits.

Now before you jump to conclusions and think I am about to advocate for a full paint booth with make-up air and/or supplied air for your garage, don’t worry. I’m not. But there are safety options out there we can use.

Safety Doesn’t Stay at the Job Site

First, look for safer paints, coatings and stripping options that are non-flammable, or less flammable, and less toxic. Sure, it’s not always an option, but if an alternative is available, consider it.

Next, get things ventilated. Sure, if you’re out in the backyard, there is more possibility of having dust blow onto that door you’re painting, but the open air helps protect against overexposure. If open-air painting won’t work for you, then clean up the garage and get some cross- or through-flow of air going to help keep the concentrations down.

If it is going to be a bigger job and ventilation may not be enough, break out the PPE. This could include coveralls and gloves to prevent skin contact—some of those solvents are absorbed through the skin; some eye protection—both to protect you from splashes and, again, to limit what’s reaching the eyes where it might be absorbed and/or cause irritation; and a respirator to protect your lungs.

Not surprisingly, many hardware stores selling paints and primers have all of these items available these days.

spraying polyurethane indoors
© / BanksPhotos

When working with solvent-laden paints, coatings or stripping options, get things ventilated, but if that's not possible, break out the PPE.

Of course, there is always the fire and explosion hazard that comes with solvents. If you’re going to be working with flammable products, keep your work away from ignition sources like pilot lights, most home appliances (non-intrinsically safe) and lit cigarettes.

Lastly, clean up and store things right. Homes often have little hands and feet that are amazingly good at getting into “stuff” that we don’t want them to, be it the cookie jar, cell phone or the paints in the garage.

A good clean-up at the end of the job safeguards where we’ve been working and keeps potentially harmful substances away from potential unintentional exposures.

It’s easy to punch out at the end of a shift and want to get as far away from “the office” as you can, but take a moment to remember that safety doesn’t stop at the edge of the job site.

A little bit of care and attention, plus some of the same things you do to stay safe at work, can go a long way to helping you be safe at home too.


Michael Halliwell

Michael Halliwell, M.Eng., CESA, EP, P.Eng., is an Associate and Environmental Engineer for Thurber Engineering Ltd. in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. During his 17-plus years with the company, he has been involved with environmental site assessment, remediation, construction inspection and supervision, and project management. He also performs hazardous building material assessments for asbestos and lead paint.



Tagged categories: Engineers; Environmental Controls; Environmental Protection; Project Management; Thurber Engineering Ltd.; Air quality; Asia Pacific; Chemical stripping; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Health & Safety; Health and safety; Latin America; North America; Paint and coatings removal; Personal protective equipment; Respirators; Ventilation

Comment from Martin Neumann, (4/22/2016, 1:41 PM)

I find it extremely odd that in a blog post that is warning readers of over exposure to certain hazards during painting operations they show two pictures of painters applying coatings with arms not covered.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (4/22/2016, 2:30 PM)

Actually, Martin, that's the point and I'm glad you picked up on the images. I didn't select the images, but they do represent what people often do at home or in their garage...quick little jobs or projects where safety doesn't really register.

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