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Worker Exposure to Paint Chemicals – Are They Hazardous?

Worker Exposure to Paint Chemicals – Are They Hazardous?

Are you concerned about worker exposure to paint chemicals?

If you need worker exposure to paints evaluation as discussed in this article, call us at 973-366-4660 or email us at info@atlenv.com for details and a free estimate.

Written By: Robert E. Sheriff, MS, CIH, CSP, President
February 18, 2020; Updated November 2021

Chemical Hazards

Many chemicals can be contained in paints—solvents, pigments, metals, resins, plasticizers— and any one or all of these paint chemicals may cause adverse health effects, especially to workers who are exposed to them daily. Most of these chemical additives are regulated by OSHA.

The best way to characterize the hazards to workers who are regularly exposed to paints (and paint chemicals) is to identify the different paints being used, their ingredients, and their hazards. Generally, the hazardous ingredients are listed on the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for the specific paints. SDS’s are, by law, available upon request from the supplier/manufacturer.

The various types of paints include:

  1. Water-based paints.
  2. Oil/solvent-based paints.
  3. Resin-type paints.
  4. Dry powder coating paints.

The Hazards of Paint

The following is a breakdown of each paint ingredients (and paint chemicals) and the ingredients that may pose potential health problems to the worker/applicator.

  1. Water-Based Paints: These paints were developed over the last two (2) decades to reduce the solvent emissions from paint application. Generally, they are latex paints (either natural rubber latex or synthetic latex) and are water-soluble. They may have some low levels of solvents (also called Volatile Organic Compounds – VOCs) that are water-soluble such as isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol), and methyl alcohol (methanol), and generally do not tend to be very hazardous. They are still recommended to be used in a paint booth or other areas with adequate ventilation. In some cases, the pigment/colorant may be of concern such as carbon black (a carcinogen), cobalt, or cadmium.
  2. Oil/Solvent Based Paints. Formerly these paints were the predominant form of paint in commercial/industrial applications, but they are not used as extensively as in the past due to the solvent content. There can be a wide variety of solvents in these depending upon the manner and speed of drying required. The faster the drying time, the more likely the evaporating solvents could pose a problem to the worker. They can pose acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) health effects. Because of the great variety of solvents used, it is essential to view the paint ingredients from the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for the type and amount of each solvent. Typical solvents are acetone, toluene, xylene, EDT, Ag, n-butyl acetate, MEK, MIBK, and MAK. Oil-based paints may also contain pigments of concern, such as lead chromate, carbon black, titanium, cadmium, and cobalt. The most common oil/solvent-based paints are varnishes, stains, metal surface paints, and various spray-can paints.
  3. Solvent and Particulate Emissions. There are two groups of emissions from such a paint operation. 1) the solvents and 2) particulates. The pigments are the particulates, either solid or liquid, that may concern worker exposure. The pigments of concern include cadmium, cobalt, lead, manganese, and carbon black, which have worker exposure limits. Again, it is vital to consult the SDS and perform sampling/testing of the paint spray operator for both the solvents and the particulates. Such paint spraying of oil/solvent-based paints should always be done in a well-ventilated, paint spray booth.
  4. Resin Type Paints: These paints were also developed to reduce solvent/VOC emissions that could expose workers and emit pollutants to the atmosphere. Such resin paints have two components, which are commonly referred to as the “A” and “B” components. In most commercial uses, the A and B components are compiled at the spray nozzle, and they rapidly form a polymeric coating that coats the surface of the paint item. Generally, the A component is the colorant, and the chemical coating and the B component are what caused the chemical reaction to polymerize the paint. The A component often has some low level of solvent to keep it liquid, and the B component is the curing agent. Although there is seldom any solvent of concern, the polymer is often an isocyanate, which results in a robust asthmatic type respiratory reaction in a person who is sensitive to the isocyanate. Typical isocyanates are TDI, MDI, and HDI. Once an individual is sensitized, it is likely they cannot work in any proximity to the isocyanate after that. These resin-based paints should be applied in a well-ventilated spray booth while the worker is monitored for the particular isocyanate identified on the SDS.
  5. Dry Powder Coating Paints: This form of paint contains no liquid component and it is almost always applied to metal parts. This is because those parts can hold an electric charge that aids the dry powder coating to adhere to the part’s surface. This will not occur, however, until the part goes through a temperature-controlled oven that “melts” the coating to the part’s surface. Generally, these coatings contain a dry plastic powder that melts to the surface when passed through the oven. In general, the only worker/applicator exposure is to the dry powder, and it is most often just a nuisance particulate. The only exception is that some dry components can be hazardous such as carbon black cadmium or silica. Remember that there are exposure limits to even nuisance dust, and there is generally a good amount of dusty overspray. As with other paints/surface coatings, this work should be performed in a spray booth. Monitoring of the worker’s exposure is advisable if the SDS identifies components of concern, including harm from the particulates.

Painting Hazards and Control Methods

The final element to ensuring a healthy environment is that all forms of surface coating applications, regardless of chemical content and method of the application, be done in a ventilated paint booth. Also, the worker should be monitored if there is concern about the paint chemicals AND if the worker wears a respirator. OSHA requires that a worker be monitored to determine if the respirator is necessary and the respirator in use is the proper one (29CFR1910.134).

You may find additional information on different articles on our website, including:

Common Solvents and Their Health Hazards.

Is Paint Thinner Dangerous to My Health?

Hazards of Isocyanates (TDI, MDI, HDI) in Resin, Coatings, and Paints.

If you need further assistance or evaluation of the process including worker monitoring for chemical exposure in the workplace, contact us at 973-366-4660 or by e-mail at info@atlenv.com.

Our primary service areas are New Jersey NJNew York NY, (New York City)Pennsylvania PAConnecticut CTDelaware DEMassachusetts, (Boston) MARhode Island RIWashington DCWisconsin WIMaryland MDMichigan MIIllinois (Chicago) ILVirginia VAIndiana INGeorgia (Atlanta) GAAlabama ALNorth Carolina NCSouth Carolina SCTennessee TNTexas (Dallas, Ft Worth) TXOklahoma OKDCArkansas AR, Florida FL. We can service most other areas of the U.S. but additional travel charges will be applied.

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