Removing paint and coatings safely
When removing paint and coatings, attention to detail is key in selecting the correct PPE for the job.
By Jim Cook
Removing paint and coatings safely isn’t just a matter of finding the right safety gear, it’s a matter of using that gear correctly.
Respirators, gloves and goggles can greatly reduce hazards associated with removing paint, varnish and stain, but they’re only helpful when employed properly. When personal protective gear is incorrectly used, it not only reduces the protection they offer, it can also give workers a false sense of security.
“The worst thing is when someone enters an environment thinking they are protected when they are not,” says Dr. Jeffrey L. Levin, chairman of the department of occupational and environmental medicine and the department of occupational health services at UT Health Northeast in Tyler, Texas.
Levin said that on every paint, stain or varnish removal job, respirators, gloves and safety glasses are necessary. Protecting workers’ respiratory
health is particularly important as painters are at high risk of developing respiratory illnesses. A 2004 study published in the International Archives of Occupational Environmental Health found that painters have three times the risk of asthma when compared to carpenters. The study also found that many painters suffer from chronic bronchitis.
The lead threat
Painters and construction workers face several risks when removing paint and coatings, including possible exposure to lead.
Lead-based paint has been banned by the Consumer Product Safety Commission for decades in residential settings, but many older homes and structures still have walls and other surfaces where lead-based paint is present. Lead-based paint also is still used on bridges, railways, ships and other steel structures.
Levin says that when workers are removing paint and coatings, the primary inhalation danger comes from dust generated by the removal process. He adds that choosing the right respirator for the type of paint or coating being removed is important.
Brian Osterried, product marketing manager for PPG, agrees. “If sanding creates dust, you want to be using the proper respirators to make sure you’re not inhaling the dust.”
For removal of lead-based paint, Levin recommends using a N95 respirator, since respirators rated N95 or higher will provide sufficient filtration from particles generated by the paint-removal
process. An R95 respirator works well for latex paints. For oil-based paints, Levin recommends a respirator outfitted with P95 filters.
Levin recommends respirators over masks, saying that masks, alone, don’t provide adequate protection.
Assuring that respirators are properly fitted is key to optimizing their effectiveness. A respirator that doesn’t fit properly will not provide the full level of protection offered by the product and will give workers a false sense of security.
Levin says respirators need to form a tight seal with users’ faces to work properly. He recommends that workers read the instructions for their respirators and to get help to properly fit the respirator. “It’s tough to fit a respirator on your own,” he says.
Risk still looms
Paints that don’t contain lead still pose health risks, as do stains and varnishes and the chemicals used to remove them. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), threats include toxicity to the nervous system, reproductive damage, liver and kidney damage, respiratory impairment, cancer and dermatitis.
Methylene chloride, a compound found in many solvents used to remove paint, poses significant health threats. It can impair the blood’s capacity to transport oxygen and may also cause permanent liver damage, kidney damage or cancer.
“When highly hazardous chemicals are not properly controlled, serious injuries, or worse, can result,” says Tom Bosley, alliance program coordinator for OSHA Region IV. “It is vitally important that employers and employees who work with identified chemicals better understand the health hazards associated with these potentially hazardous chemicals, and the methods to control exposures.”
When using methylene chloride paint strippers, cartridge respirators alone won’t provide adequate protection. When concentrations of 625 parts per million are present, OSHA requires that workers be provided with a continuous flow supplied-air respirator, hood or helmet. At concentrations of 1,250 parts per million, OSHA requires a full-face, air-supplying respirator.
When removing paint and coatings, gloves are important too. They provide protection against absorption by the skin, which is particularly important when working with solvents used to remove stain and varnish. Levin says surgical and latex gloves aren’t sturdy enough to provide protection against absorption from solvents. For removing paint and coatings safely, Levin recommends neoprene gloves. For handling methylene chloride, OSHA recommends polyvinyl alcohol protective gloves to ensure methylene chloride does not penetrate them.
Safety glasses also play an important role in protecting workers. Paint chips and chemicals used to remove paint can cause significant harm to the eyes, so obtaining a durable set of safety glasses and wearing them while working is key. Aprons help protect workers from getting chemicals and debris on their clothes. This is important as contaminants may otherwise settle on workers’ clothing and come into contact with others.
Workers can use different methods of paint removal to reduce risk. Wet scraping can reduce dust released in the air when removing paint, as can methods of removal that use heat. Good work practices, such as proper ventilation and regular breaks, also can mitigate the risks to respiratory and overall health caused by paint removal.
Information is king, and Osterried says there’s a growing culture of safety among painters and related Pros, thanks to the advent of home improvement television shows. The good safety habits demonstrated on these shows are helping to reinforce the message product manufacturers and government agencies have been promoting for years.
Enrique Hernandez is an Atlanta-area contractor who employs about nine people. Hernandez says awareness of the need for proper safety gear when removing paint and coatings has improved in recent years as knowledge of inhalation risks has become more widespread.
Hernandez insists that his workers wear proper protective gear when removing paint and coatings. He says that using the right safety gear – and using it correctly – is particularly important when removing paint from concrete, as the removal process may also release contaminants trapped in the concrete into the atmosphere.
“It’s important that it does not go into the lungs,” Hernandez says. “Safety is first.”