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Day to day, it may it may seem that the main problem with dust in the body shop is that it can ruin paintwork and settle inside windows making rework and extra cleaning necessary.

These are indeed important issues, as all this activity requires valuable time and resources impacting on productivity and revenue. However, the main concern should always be workers’ health.

According to the latest figures from the Health and Safety Executive, around 12 000 people die each year from respiratory diseases caused by past working conditions. This covers all industries, including body shops, where workers may be regularly exposed to harmful respiratory hazards.

This is because dust is an unavoidable by-product of dry sanding, which is a staple process in any body shop. Harmful particulate dusts can become airborne during dry sanding processes of common body fillers, including polyester filler, two-pack primer filler as well as original equipment manufacturer (OEM) top coats and new paint. Even non-toxic substances can be harmful if inhaled in large quantities over long periods.

Furthermore hazardous dusts are not only generated by power tools. For example, one of the most harmful dusts in the body shop comes from polyester filler, which is generally sanded with a hand block. Without appropriate control measures in place, harmful dust can quickly fill the working environment, potentially posing a serious respiratory hazard. Even when the air looks clear, invisible volumes of dust may be present. In fact, it is the tiniest particles – invisible to the eye – that pose the greatest risk, as these can by-pass through the body’s own filtering systems, such as nasal hairs, mucus membranes and cough reflexes, and enter the deepest parts of the lungs.

Employers have a duty of care to their employees, so far as is reasonably practicable they must consider eliminating these risks completely and/or take actions to reduce workers’ exposure to them.

In order to do this, health and safety managers should follow the established hierarchy of controls, which also applies to other types of hazards.

The first step in this hierarchy, after carrying out an initial risk assessment, is to seek to eliminate the hazard completely. Unfortunately, in many cases this is not practicable. The second step to consider is the potential “substitution’ of harmful processes or substances to reduce the associated risks. Again, this may not always be reasonably practicable given the requirements of the job in hand.

The next step to consider is to limit hazards using engineering controls. In the case of dust hazards, this means using some form of dust extraction system, which is vital. There are two main types of dust extraction system used in the body shop – portable and centralised. Both use vacuum systems to remove dust from the sanding tool through a hose, preventing it from escaping into the atmosphere in large quantities.

Portable extraction systems can be wheeled around the body shop from one job to another and usually used by only one or two people at a time. Therefore, body shops could buy more units as the business grows, without having to pay for a larger centralised system during the early years. One potential problem with portable extraction systems is that some models can be accidentally knocked into vehicles that are being worked on, causing damage. A management system to ensure the systems are cleaned and maintained according to the manufacturer’s instructions should be implemented.

Centralised extraction systems, on the other hand, are fixed in situ. These can be used by many people at once, but more users will result in a loss of suction power, as the overall suction force is constant. Again, if using a centralised appropriate extraction system, but this is rare among body shops.

Another point to consider when it comes to tools and engineering controls is the impact that different abrasives can have on dust levels Abrasive discs with holes in them will provide a higher level of dust extraction. Discs with no holes, which are available at the low end of the market, should be avoided in the body shop.

Higher quality abrasives will create the same amount of dust as lower quality alternatives, but in higher concentrations, as they will enable the job to be carried out faster. Therefore, with better abrasives, more extraction power is needed.

The fourth control measures to consider is “administration” controls, such as preventing individuals from entering specific hazardous areas of the body shop if they do not need to be there. Sometimes, a respiratory hazard will remain even after taking these engineering control measures. In these cases, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) may be necessary as part of an employer’s control regime. For limiting dust exposure, the most important item of PPE is Respiratory Protective Equipment (RP). In body shops, disposable respirators are often used.

All RPE must be both adequate to protect against the particular hazards being faced, as well as suitable for the weaker, task and environment. This is also true of all other types of PPF. To ensure that RPE is suitable, employers should consider offering workers a range of options and involving them in the selection process. Employers are also required to test wearers of tight-fitting RPE to ensure the respirator adequately seals to the user’s face, as it performance hinges on this. For the same reason, wearers of tight-fitting RPE must be clean-shaven under the areas of the face seal. For those with facial hair, loose fitting head tops connected to powered air systems may be the only alternative when RPE is required.