The fact that paints, stains, and surface coatings are all around us often makes people believe they are perfectly safe. Since the majority of lead-based products have been eliminated, some of the health risks have been mitigated. It may come as something of a surprise to workers entering positions that involve spraying, rolling, and brushing paint, but paints still contain dangerous elements.

That’s why OSHA regulations for indoor painting have become increasingly stringent regarding the need for ventilation, personal protective equipment, and disposable clothing for all settings. By understanding the health and safety risks of working with paints and coatings, employers and can better protect their employees from long and short-term health issues.

Exposure to Paint Fumes in the Workplace

The global paint and coatings industry continues to show significant growth year-over-year, and that means an increased number of employees will be subjected to exposure to paint fumes in the workplace. Although the worldwide pandemic saw market share slip from $162 billion in 2019 to $107 billion in 2020, experts anticipate steady annual growth to exceed $165 billion by 2023 and a stunning $207 billion by 2028. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimates more than 155,000 people work in painting and coating occupations. Anticipated annual growth hovers around 7 percent in the following sectors.

  • Architectural: The wide range of paint and sealants used in residential and commercial buildings results in companies employing the largest workforce.
  • Automotive: Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) employ more than 7 percent of the painting and coating labor force. Automotive refinishing and protective coatings add to a high employment sector.
  • Marine: The painting and sealing of ocean and freshwater vessels includes a significant portion of the workforce that often conducts tasks in enclosed spaces, which presents additional safety risks.
  • Industrial Wood: The staining, painting, laminating, and coating of wood building materials occurs within manufacturing plants at an increased rate. Builders and DIY homeowners are purchasing installation-ready materials that are finished in plants.

People who work in wide-reaching industries also encounter potentially harmful fumes. For example, metal coil coating workers may suffer exposure to fumes, much like indoor home and commercial building painters.

What Do Paint Fumes Contain that Make Them Dangerous?

The so-called “new paint” smell that everyday people experience is driven by the evaporation of sometimes harmful chemicals. It’s essential to understand that paint and coating vapors can continue to pose a health risk while drying. However, the strong emission from wet paint and coatings during the application process is the most dangerous.

Carcinogens are found in a common bucket of wet paint as well as volatile organic compounds or VOCs. These chemicals release fumes that are known to cause adverse health effects when breathed into the lungs and typically include the following.

  • Toluene: This clear and colorless liquid turns into a vapor at room temperature. It is widely used in paint pigmentation gasoline and can impact the nervous system.
  • Xylene: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this chemical irritates the eyes, nose, skin, and throat. Exposure also may result in headaches, dizziness, confusion, and failed muscle coordination. Prolonged exposure can prove fatal.
  • Benzene: This hazardous chemical turns into vapor quickly when paint and coating containers are opened. The fumes tend to sink into low-lying spaces, according to the CDC. Exposure can result in irregular heart rhythms, headaches, tremors, and confusion. Excessive exposure can prove fatal.
  • Dichloromethane: Commonly used in paint remover, exposure causes fatigue, lethargy, headache, and chest pain. Over-exposure can result in death.
  • Formaldehyde: Often employed in building materials such as pressed wood, this hazard can also cause adverse health reactions through skin contact. Formaldehyde has also been linked to cancer.
  • Trichloroethylene: Used in wide-reaching industrial settings, this chemical has been linked to groundwater contamination and cancer. Vapor inhalation poses a danger to the lungs, and direct contact can result in the carcinogen entering the body.
  • Acetone: This chemical has a wide range of commercial applications that include solvents, nail polish, and it is considered highly flammable. Inhalation results in prompt nose, eye, throat, and lung irritation. Ongoing exposure typically causes dizziness, erratic heart rates, confusion and can result in death.

This short-list ranks among the more dangerous chemicals that workers routinely encounter throughout painting and coating occupations. Others include Ethanol, Propylene glycol, Glycol ethers, and Styrene. Workers are considered at heightened risk when performing tasks in enclosed spaces. Without adequate ventilation and airflow, everyday people are more likely to breathe in concentrated fumes that cause more serious illness and injury.

Adverse Health Effects of Paint and Coating Fumes

Exposure to paint fumes in the workplace puts people at risk of short-term ailments and debilitating health conditions that can last a lifetime. VOC health effects tend to be counted among the short-term conditions that people can generally heal from with rest and medical supervision. Issues such as eye irritation, headaches, and even modest breathing difficulty can be overcome within weeks in many cases. Mild paint and coating VOC exposure usually sidelines workers in many cases. However, the implications of excessive exposure or contact with known carcinogens can result in long-term conditions.

Carcinogens such as Benzene have been linked to debilitating and fatal conditions such as cancer and liver damage. What makes this class of paint and coating additives so dangerous stems from the fact that both skin contact and inhalation put workers at risk. It’s crucial to keep in mind a wide variety of products include known carcinogens making painting hazards and control measures such as a paint suit necessary.

Do OSHA Regulations Cover Paint Fumes or Painting Safety?

In terms of painting hazards and control measures, a variety of OSHA regulations generally apply. The general industry standards that involve a safe workspace include areas free of walking impediments, slip and fall hazards, and common risk factors associated with the environment or job application. Given many painters and people who use solvents work in the construction sector, regulations regarding safety training, education, and ventilation, among others, remain critical measures that employers are required to observe. OSHA ventilation requirements include the following.

  • Dust, vapors, and fumes cannot exceed safety limits established by OSHA.
  • Local exhaust methods will be employed to extricate dust, fumes, and vapors to reduce concentrations to safe levels.
  • Exhaust fans and mechanical devices are required to expel fumes, dust, and vapors from enclosed spaces.

OSHA regulations for indoor painting mandate that safe ventilation practices are employed during the entire duration someone is working in an area that could expose them to carcinogens, VOCs, and other potentially harmful elements. Whenever possible, paint spraying should be conducted in large, well-ventilated areas. The health and safety organization also mandates specialized breathing apparatuses are available in close quarters and personal protective equipment and clothing are utilized.

Safety Tips to Minimize Exposure to Paint Fumes in the Workplace

The keys to minimizing VOC and carcinogen inhalation are generally adequate ventilation and respiratory protection. Employers are tasked with maintaining exhaust systems and ensuring employees have access to respirators when working indoors or in spaces with high levels of toxic fumes. Proper ventilation may involve commercial exhaust fans that force air out of an enclosed work area. But it’s also critical to install grates that allow fresh air to be drawn into the space while fans are operational.

Opening doors to let fresh air in does not meet OSHA standards and turning off exhaust systems due to inclement or cold weather creates an imminent danger. That’s largely why enclosed paint spraying areas typically utilize commercial-grade HVAC systems to ensure people get fresh air, fumes are removed, and reasonable temperatures can be maintained. Along with ventilation that meets OSHA standards, employees are advised to wear the following personal protective equipment and disposable clothing when working with paints, coatings, and solvents.

  • Coveralls: Disposable personal protective coveralls that meet industry standards for splash resistance are a necessity when working with chemicals. One of the common missteps employers and workers make is assuming the paint products are not harmful in terms of skin contact. This is usually not the case.
  • Foot Protection: Indoor painting crews who wear comfortable shoes may not have adequate protection against spills. It’s advisable to adorn protective footwear coverings that can be appropriately disposed of at the end of each shift.
  • Gloves: Spraying, rolling, and brushing on paints and coatings results in splatter accumulating on workers’ hands. That’s why protective gloves remain a workplace necessity.

Companies can also take proactive painting hazards and control measures to minimize fume inhalation. Scheduling outdoor spraying whenever possible provides workers with an abundance of fresh air and eliminates the risks associated with enclosed spaces. Companies also can consider transitioning to less toxic products and those that do not contain carcinogens linked to fatal conditions such as cancer.

How To Approach Inhaled Paint Fumes or Chemical Skin Contact

People who suffer exposure to paint fumes in the workplace typically experience initial discomfort such as dizziness and nausea, among others. It’s critical to evacuate a space laced with toxic paint fumes and get to fresh air. The next order of business is to contact a poison control resource and seek medical attention.

Workers who fail to wear a paint suit and sustain skin or eye contact are advised to promptly flush the impacted area with clean water. This should be repeated to wash away the chemicals, and people compromised by paint chemicals should seek medical treatment as soon as possible.

Paint fume and chemical contact call for adequate ventilation, fresh air, and personal protective equipment and clothing. International Enviroguard manufacturers and distributes a complete line of protective clothing and accessories that exceed industry standards for paint work and applications.