Gary Wilcox from workplace safety systems company Monit warns about the avoidable health risks posed by isocyanates.


It’s time to talk about the elephant in the room, specifically the paint room. 

Autobody repair shops have lived with using highly toxic chemicals to get pretty finishes on vehicles for years and over time we have become complacent about how destructive these chemicals are to our bodies.  

One of the most commonly used, and dangerous, chemicals in a panel shop are isocyanates which are used in many paints and sealers. 

Even though there’s plenty of warnings around the dangers of these chemicals, I still walk through too many paint shops today and see painters using incorrect personal protective equipment or even worse, no PPE at all when using isocyanates.  

We all thought water base paints would rid us of this hazardous material but, unfortunately, it’s still used in clear coats, fillers, primers and sealers. 

The practice of workers not adequately protecting themselves against isocyanates is not only unhealthy for the worker but poses a major risk for the business owner should a painter seek damages. 

Be warned, businesses using isocyanates are on the radar of every health and safety authority and their inspectors have been well trained in what to look for. 

As a business owner if your workers are not using the correct PPE when using isocyanates then this is what you are exposing them to. 

Isocyanates are powerful irritants to the mucous membranes of the eyes and gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts. Direct skin contact can also cause marked inflammation. Isocyanates can also sensitise workers, making them subject to severe asthma attacks if they are exposed again. There is evidence that both respiratory and dermal exposures can lead to sensitisation.

Death from severe asthma in some sensitised subjects has been reported. Workers potentially exposed to isocyanates who experience persistent or recurring eye irritation, nasal congestion, dry or sore throat, cold-like symptoms, cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, or chest tightness should see a physician knowledgeable in work-related health problems. 

A few years ago, I spent two weeks travelling through New Zealand with the Department of Labour who were conducting a roadshow on the dangers of isocyanates in panel shops.  

Up until this point I was like everyone else in the industry, complacent, but hearing about the dangers of this chemical night after night finally got though my thick skull. 

The most critical step a panel shop can take to minimise isocyanate exposure in the workplace is to ALWAYS paint in a well maintained boothOn top of this each painter must be wearing an air fed mask and other personal protective equipment such as coveralls, gloves and footwear. 

A study was conducted to assess which PPE outside of an air fed respirator was best to protect a worker from isocyanates. 

Gloves: Latex gloves gave the best long term benefits. Nitrile were only good for abut 15min before the chemical breached the material. 

Coveralls: Polypropylene/polyethylene (PP/PE) coveralls were best. Tyvek coveralls didn’t even keep out primer let alone the paint. Normal clothing, in this case cotton, showed that it acted as an absorption material for the chemical which quickly penetrated to the worker’s body.  

A worker suspected of having isocyanate induced asthma/sensitization will exhibit thetraditional symptoms of acute airway obstruction, e.g., coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, and nocturnal awakening. 

 Recent studies have identified isocyanates to contain human carcinogens which cause cancer.  The world production of isocyanates is estimated to be 1.4 billion kilograms annually.

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