U.S. to Crack Down on Isocyanates

FRIDAY, JUNE 28, 2013

A chemical used in everything from paints and varnishes to spray foam insulation and building materials is the target of new federal scrutiny aimed at protecting workers.

Isocyanates, in widespread and growing use throughout the architectural coatings and building materials industry, are the focus of a new National Emphasis Program by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Painters, drywallers, insulation installers, paperhangers and flooring contractors all work with products that contain isocyanates and will fall under the program's purview.

The chemicals can cause occupational asthma; irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat; and cancer, OSHA reports. Isocyanate exposures have also caused deaths due to both asthma and hypersensitivity pneumonitis.

OSHA announced the National Emphasis Program on Thursday (June 20)—the same day that PPG Industries announced that it had received a $1 million grant from the Department of Defense to develop military-grade coatings that do not use isocyanates.

One veteran coating industry consultant immediately said the new program could have "far-reaching potential impact" on the paint and coatings industry.

Wide-Ranging Risks

Isocyanates are widely used in the manufacture of flexible and rigid foams, fibers, coatings, paints, varnishes and elastomers, the agency notes. They are also increasingly used in the automobile industry, auto body repair, and building insulation materials. And spray-on polyurethanes are used in a wide variety of industrial, commercial and retail applications to protect steel, cement, wood, fiberglass and aluminum.

"Workers in a wide range of industries and occupations are exposed to at least one of the numerous isocyanates known to be associated with work-related asthma," according to OSHA.

Frequently serious and sometimes fatal, occupational asthma is characterized by intermittent breathing difficulty that includes chest tightness, wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.

Spraying foam insulation
City of Bellaire, TX

Applicators of foam insulation are among the occupational groups at risk for isocyanate exposures. Overexposures can lead to asthma, cancer and death.

Exposure environments include painting, blowing foam insulation, and the manufacture and thermal degradation of many polyurethane products, including polyurethane foam, insulation materials, surface coatings and adhesives.

Respiratory disease among workers exposed to isocyanates has been recognized since the 1950s.

Focus on Coatings, Building Materials

OSHA's 48-page Isocyanate NEP Instruction is likely to reverberate across the coatings and building materials industries. The instruction applies to all general industry, construction and maritime workplaces under the jurisdction of Federal OSHA.

The document details a site selection system that will target multiple industries and focus on evaluating inhalation, dermal and other routes of occupational exposure to isocyanates.

Industrial painter

Isocyanates are used in many protective coatings. OSHA's new National Emphasis Program details equipment and controls employers must use to protect workers.

The document lays out:

  • Health risks and exposures;
  • Sampling, field extraction and sample shipment procedures;
  • Health surveillance forms for workers;
  • Sample hazard alert letters for employers;
  • Guidance on personal protective equipment; and
  • Publications and resources.

The painting, automotive, building and construction industries are among those called out in the document as industries where isocyanate exposures are known or likely to occur. Sealants and insulating materials used in mining and insulation used in mechanical engineering are also singled out.

Who's at Risk

According to OSHA, painting and wallcovering contractors, drywall and insulation contractors, flooring contractors, glass and glazing contractors, paint and coating manufacturing workers, ship building, industry shop painting, metal coating and manufacturing are all considered occupations where isocyanate exposures:

  • Are known to occur;
  • Have been demonstrated to be above the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL); and
  • Have led to illnesses.
Modern trade painter
Lukeroberts / Wikimedia Commons

Painters are among the groups likely to face exposure to hazardous isocyanates. OSHA will focus on employers whose workers are in targeted risk groups.

Inclusion on the occupation list does not necessarily mean worker overexposures, OSHA adds.

OSHA’s web page on isocyanates provides additional information on recognizing potential hazards, as well as OSHA standards that address isocyanates in the general, construction and maritime industries.

'Debilitating Health Problems'

"Workers exposed to isocyanates can suffer debilitating health problems for months or even years after exposure,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “Through this program, OSHA will strengthen protections for workers exposed to isocyanates.”

OSHA develops National Emphasis Programs to focus outreach efforts and inspections on specific hazards in an industry for a three-year period. About a dozen NEPs are currently underway, including programs focused on lead, combustible dust, shipbreaking and hexavalent chromium hazards.

New Rule Ahead?

Longtime coating industry consultant Alison B. Kaelin, an expert on occupational health and regulatory affairs, predicted Wednesday that the NEP would have "far-reaching potential impact on the industrial painting industry."

Alison Kaelin

Coatings consultant Alison B. Kaelin said the new program would be felt across the industrial painting industry.

She noted that the program "references painters and paper hangers (SIC 1721) and coating manufacturers (SIC 3479) among the targeted industries" and added, "We know that many polyurethane and polyurea coatings contain isocyanates."

The program will be felt in recordkeeping, exposure assessments, hazard communication, housekeeping and flammable and combustible materials, said Kaelin, an award-winning writer and JPCL Top Thinker.

Finally, she noted, "NEPs sometimes signal potential rulemaking in the future."


Tagged categories: Coating chemistry; Combustible Dust; Enforcement; Environmental Control; Good Technical Practice; hazardous materials; Health and safety; Hexavalent chromium; Lead; OSHA; Respirators; Workers

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