That’s a headline that isn’t online anywhere. We don’t hear much about retired painters. It makes us question their existence at times. We sure wouldn’t want to think that painters are happy to work themselves to death.
Ruling out poor planning, what factors are really working against a painter’s ability to reach retirement?
If the chemicals evaporating during paint off gassing weren’t enough, the particles in the air on paint jobs are filling painter lungs all day long. Every day.
We all try not to think about it, but painting comes with health risk.
While workplace safety regulations seem laser focused on literally keeping workers from getting hurt in accidents, the quieter and more subtle danger might be higher by simply breathing on job sites.
Dust Never Sleeps
Not to downplay the daily risk of job site injuries, but we do take more breaths in a minute or hour than any other single thing we do while working.
And guess what? The dust particles we breath enter our lungs…where according to most studies, it likely stays.
Sure, evolution has equipped painters with thicker nose hairs for a pre-filter, but what gets through is unlikely to come back out.
In other words, airborne particles get through your nose, then they have a chance to mess with your throat before landing in your lungs to stay.
So far, we’ve not heard of any type of lung scrubbing procedure or lung replacement surgery.
You got what you got.
And that could be part of why the retired painters aren’t tweeting us from their retirements much.
You Don’t See Painters Walking Around Exhaling Dust…Or DO You?
Many painters don’t even realize that paint fumes have long term neurological and brain/cognitive effects. Over the past few decades, studies have shown that those damages can take decades to show up, while others can be much more immediate.
In some cases, painters get occupational asthma or dyspnea, which is a serious condition characterized by difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and coughing.
Ordinary dust is bad enough, and what’s in paint dust is worse. Painters have become more aware in the past decade about the dangers of crystalline silica in dust form.
Crystalline silica is a raw material commonly used in paint products. Long term exposure causes a condition called “silicosis”…you know, fatigue, shortness of breath, feeling weak.
Here is OSHA’s take on CS and its dangers. The info is more immediately concerned with the workers who mine CS, but the risk is also great for those exposed to it mixed with other chemicals in paints or paint dust.
Silica Safe also provides education about the dangers of the material and how to work responsibly with it. When we understand WHY we shouldn’t do something, we are more likely to listen and take action.
“A worker’s chance of becoming ill from exposure to silica dust depends on the tasks performed, the amount of dust they are exposed to, and the frequency of the exposures. Each exposure to silica adds into the total load of silica in the lungs – in other words, each exposure adds to the lung damage.”
It’s in Prep too.
Because painters typically do lots of skimming, patching and filling, this is it’s own category of dust exposure, and it even contains crystalline silica.
These compounds are often made with ingredients like talc, calcite, gypsum and silica. According the Center for Disease Control, these can be associated with varying degrees of eye, nose, throat and respiratory tract irritation.
“Over time, breathing the dust from drywall joint compounds may cause persistent throat and airway irritation, coughing, phlegm production, and breathing difficulties similar to asthma. Smokers or workers with sinus or respiratory conditions may risk even worse health problems. When silica is present, workers may also face an increased risk of silicosis and lung cancer.”
Much of the research is based on the automotive paint industry, which apparently is a larger sample than residential painting. While automotive painting involves some chemicals that we don’t use, there are far more similarities than differences. A recent Yale study took a look at that.
“Sanding paint and filler material creates a lot of fine dust that is easily inhaled and can irritate your breathing tubes and eyes. The dust may contain hazardous substances as well, such as lead, chromium, and the abrasives from sanding disks. This dust can be harmful if inhaled or ingested.”
House painters cross into the category of wood dust as well, as there are so many wood surfaces that we work with. At least that’s an organic, naturally occurring thing, right?
Not so fast. The Wood Database points out that long term exposure to wood dust isn’t good for us either. It comes with its own toxins and carcinogens that have negative effects.
“These invisible particles get inhaled and cause tiny wounds and scarring to our lungs: each time this happens, it causes a very small amount of irreversible damage. The immediate effect is unnoticeable, but over long periods of time, this can result in significantly decreased lung capacity, and a number of other health issues.”
What Great Companies Do
Great companies reduce risk and create an environment in which their employees are safe. For painters, this means many things. Your employees need to be able to trust that you are only hiring good people, working for customers who respect quality work and service, and providing the best available equipment and products for a sustainable, healthy crew. And, of course, they have to trust that you will pay them appropriately to work at a high standard.
How do we do all that?
First move is a company standard for PPE. Learn more here. It continues to blow our minds when we see painters sanding or even spraying with no protection whatsoever. That is just unacceptable these days. Make it a policy where it becomes a daily habit for everyone.
Another great step is making sure that your company is using waterborne instead of solvent based products. This reduces exposure greatly. With that, make sure that your company training program is able to educate painters on efficient and safe use of these new product technologies.
Train one person in your company and empower them to help others better understand product and process. We call this #trainthetrainer.
On the tool side, select sprayers that don’t waste product. We still cringe when we see companies doing everything with airless sprayers using too much pressure and oversized tips in the name of production. Airless still has its time and place but its not everyday and everywhere anymore.
There are sprayer options such as HVLP and Air Assisted that have much higher transfer efficiencies than airless, exposing painters to less airborne overspray and the resulting dry fall dust.
Less product is wasted, which is also good for profits.
Cleaning Up Your Operation
Job site cleanliness is perhaps the biggest area that needs improvement in most companies.
If your company is using a cheap shop vac, you are basically sucking dust off the floor and blowing it back into the room where it can be inhaled.
Putting efficient sanders on dust extractors is step one to reducing exposure because this captures dust at the source during prep and keeps it from either becoming airborne or settling into the room environment.
[Related: Learn about the Benefits of Proper Dust Extraction]
These operational improvements will appeal to your customers and your employees as you move forward in creating a more sustainable and profitable paint company.
We even encourage paint contractors to use these advancements as points of differentiation in marketing. Good customers do appreciate that.
In our own paint contracting company, we educate them about it…here’s how: Sustainable Painting Practices.
Can we make our generation the one that retires and tweets from the beach?