Is your shop a safe working environment? Safety rarely sells, but it can save personal injury, time and money, usually with a very small relative investment. Even where workplace safety legislation and insurance issues are up front, it still pays to think about safety, both from the employer’s and technician’s perspective.
The good news about shop safety is that Canadian service businesses have been improving steadily. According to Jack Smith, general manager of programs, occupational health and safety for the Canada Safety Council, “Over the period of the last decade it has become a lot safer for the folks working in these environments simply because the educational level of service technicians is much higher than it was. They are more aware of certain occupational health and safety issues, everything from handling of solvents, chemicals and fluids from vehicles to proper disposition of them. Things like shop cleanliness and wiping up spills. Most service places you go into today are spotless compared to before, when if you didn’t slip and fall in the oil spills, you’d probably cut yourself on the equipment. It’s changed so dramatically over the years.”
While cleaner, more organized work environments have contributed to the steady fall in workplace accidents, the reality of automotive service work is that serious injury is possible in many different procedures. One of the primary strategies for technicians should be to protect their eyes.
Vision safety is paramount
It’s self-evident that the best way to treat eye safety is to keep chemicals and foreign objects out in the first place. Safety glasses and goggles are the first line of defense, but technicians need to choose carefully, says Elinor Ridley, owner of Angel Safety Products Inc. in Fort Langley B.C.: “They should have polycarbonate lenses, and should definitely be a true optic lens, which means no distortion. You get what you pay for. There are cheap products that are low impact, which may be fine if you’re not going to have anything flying at your lenses, but you definitely want to make sure that you have high impact if they meet your requirements. There are all kinds of product on the market, and cheaper isn’t always better.”
Polycarbonate safety glasses are great for everyday work, but chemicals may still enter the eyes if splashed. Goggles are the answer for eye protection, but be sure to specify models that are indirectly vented. Indirect venting offers the best protection against intrusion of the fluid, while remaining fog-free.
If an accident does occur, speedy attention at the eye wash station is essential. The universal squeeze-bottle eye wash station attached to the shop wall is one area that requires a little attention to be ready for action in an emergency. The first step is obvious: can everyone in the shop find it when needed? Clear wall space is at a premium in most bays; tearing down banners to find the bottle will waste valuable seconds. Most shops can legally use squeeze-bottle eyewash apparatus, but an increasing number of larger operations are installing dedicated basins and emergency showers. For the bottle-based units, an important factor is the frequency with which the water inside is changed. “Water” is another issue, since conventional tap water may not be an irritant, but can act as a growth medium for bacteria. Use of an approved eye wash solution is a practical answer, but all eye wash media should be changed at least as frequently as the supplier recommends.
Ridley advises frequent solution changes for maximum safety: “The most conservative recommendation is weekly. Unless they have a bacteriostatic additive in it, then it may be good for three or four months. We also like to recommend that if they are working with chemicals, that their eyewash station should contain a neutralizer rather than just water or saline, because diluting chemicals is one thing, but neutralizing acids and bases is another. They should consult their local safety supply house and ask for it.”
Should the need arise, one important rule to follow in flushing contaminated eyes is “don’t quit”. Consider eyes as sponges that can’t be wrung out, and imagine the length of time it takes to clear it with running water. Fifteen minutes of continuous flushing is a good idea for chemical contamination, along with a trip to the hospital. Other technicians should encourage affected co-workers to keep going; the process will be uncomfortable, but can prevent permanent damage. Keep in mind that flushing should be done in cases of chemical contamination. Particles and foreign objects in the eye should not be disturbed. There have been cases of technicians attempting to remove metal particles with magnetic pick-ups, lacerating the affected eye. Follow standard first-aid procedures and seek qualified medical help.
Protect your skin
It may seem strange to consider skin care in the same light as accident prevention, but exposure to toxic and corrosive chemicals in the bays is essentially a chronic, constant “accident” that goes largely unnoticed. Just like the heart, liver or lungs, skin is an organ; it also suffers when abused. The main property of skin that concerns the technician is its ability to keep foreign matter out. “The better the skin is, the better the protective barrier is”, says Ron Barnhart, senior research associate for GoJo Industries. “Of course that’s the primary function of the skin: to keep things out of your body. A big part of our laboratory is set up just to measure the condition of your skin. We measure the percentage of moisture; it’s directly proportional to the condition of your skin. Another is transepidermal water loss measurement, the measurement of how much water moves through your skin. That’s the true measure of what kind of barrier function your skin is presenting. How well it keeps the moisture in your body and how well it keeps out solvents and pathogens.”
Barnhart advises that the better the condition of the skin prior to exposure, the less likely that minor chemical exposure will cause irritation. Use of moisturizing creams or lotions, however, has a distinctly feminine ring to many technicians; regular use, however, will prepare the skin for exposure. “Whenever you can do it ahead of time you’ll see better results than if you try to mitigate it afterwards”, relates Barnhart.
Barrier creams can be useful, especially if exposure is infrequent, but generally shouldn’t be used in place of a good skin care regime. And barrier creams must never be used in place of protective equipment when dealing with transepidermal (going through the skin) carcinogens such as benzene, which is a component of gasoline. Latex surgical-type gloves give good protection until they’re torn or punctured, when they can trap contaminants against the skin. Professional technician’s gloves are available that give reasonable “feel” while offering better protection. Another reason to consider professional gloves is where technicians make extensive use of impact tools. Guns transmit shock into the hands and wrists, and are a potential source of repetitive strain injury or even carpal tunnel syndrome. A good skin care regime for technicians would be four hand washings per day with the application of a moisturizing lotion after each. Hand cleaners should be chosen that are as mild as possible to remove the dirt and oils. Declares Barnhard, “Using the most mild hand cleaner is important because unfortunately, the oils that get on your skin are chemically similar to the oils in your skin that you want to keep there. The more aggressive hand cleaners are going to take the oils out of your skin to some degree. It’s just the price you pay for getting clean hands. That’s one of the most important things: don’t overclean your hands, simply clean them.”
Taking responsibility for safety
Just who’s responsible for maintaining a safe workplace? Put simply, everyone in the workplace, according to Elizabeth Turnbull, marketing manager, prevention division for Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. “We don’t like to
point fingers to one side or the other. We rely on something called the internal responsibility system, which means it’s up to the workplace parties to determine how best to address their own particular workplace’s needs. So there are employers’ responsibilities and also workers’ rights and responsibilities. The employers should keep a safe and well maintained workplace, provide safety equipment and training, provide first aid training and first aid kits, and have worker representation for health and safety. Workers have the responsibility to work safely, to report unsafe conditions, to use and wear the right safety equipment for the job, and to advise their employers if they have any questions about health and safety issues.”
Technicians need to assess their working environment and determine the level of personal protection necessary to perform their tasks safely. Personal equipment should start with approved footwear, eye protection, gloves as necessary and potentially an installer’s “hard hat” for under car service. Owners must provide a safe bay environment both in terms of equipment and enforcement of safe practices. There’s far more to the workplace health and safety issue than can be covered in any one article, but information is readily available from provincial, federal and regional governments and associations, as well as the Internet. SSGM