Paint Manufacturers

Isocyanate Health Surveillance

Employees Health provide onsite isocyanate health monitoring all around Australia. We conduct these health assessments, as per WorkSafe requirements, for workers exposed to isocyanates in the workplace.

Due to the health issues associated with isocyanate exposure, there is legislation governed by Worksafe requiring persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) to initiate a Health Surveillance (monitoring) program for workers exposed to these chemicals in the workplace.

In the automotive industry this is often referred to as spray painter health monitoring. Work Health Professionals work with Motor Trade Australia WA to help their members manage their OHS requirements for spray painters, as well as noise exposure hazards and audiometric testing for panel beaters.

What is involved in Health Surveillance for Isocyanates?

Each isocyanate health assessment includes a:

  • health questionnaire
  • skin and eye check, and
  • a lung function test, or spirometry.

It can usually be done in 20-30 minutes, and is required every 6-12 months pending health assessment outcomes – more frequently for employees new to the role. Early recognition of employee sensitisation to isocyanates is essential to reduce the risk of long-term or permanent respiratory problems.

Isocyanate Health Monitoring - How Often?

We recommend that the https://www.safework.nsw.gov.au/about-us/safework-nsw-regulatory-priorities-2023  Regulatory Guidelines, Safework  should be followed when establishing the regularity of health surveillance. There is also their more recent guide to handling isocynates that recommends the following:

  • New Employees to the industry (including apprentices): baseline health monitoring (before they start the work), 6 weeks after exposure, 6 months
  • Existing workers: 6 monthly, and where monitoring after 12 months shows no adverse health effects,  the appointed medical practitioner may choose to carry out annual monitoring
  • A final examination should be conducted at the termination of the work.

If a worker’s results are abnormal or significantly changed from a previous assessment, they may be recommended for a follow up assessment to investigate possible health issues.

Code of Practice

Safe Work Australia reviewed the model Code Code of Practice for workers in the Paint manufacturing Industry. For all automotive body repair employers and paint and panel workshops, there is a WorkSafe responsibility to initiate an isocyanate Health Surveillance program to minimise the risk of permanent health damage to their spray painters.

Isocyanate Health Risks

There are serious health effects associated with occupational exposure to isocyanates. Diligent use of personal protective equipment and safe working practices is needed to ensure spray painters and powder coaters minimise the risk of permanent health damage.

The greatest risks are from inhaling vapours, fine droplets (aerosols) and dusts containing Isocyanates, as they irritate the linings of the nose, throat, lungs and eyes. The health effects include:

  • occupational asthma
  • irritation of the skin (dermatitis)
  • irriation of the mucous membranes (eyes, nose, and throat)
  • hypersensitivity
  • pneumonitis and
  • chest tightness

Isocyanates include compounds also classified as potential human carcinogens (cancer causing compounds) and are known to cause cancer in animals.

The greatest risks are from inhaling vapours, fine droplets (aerosols) and dusts containing Isocyanates, as they irritate the linings of the nose, throat, lungs and eyes. People exposed to Isocyanates at work are at greater risk of developing respiratory problems, such as asthma, if they breathe in isocyanate vapours or droplets of resin spray.  There is also a risk of skin conditions if there is regular skin contact with isocyanates.

Who is Exposed to Isocyanates?

All isocyanates are hazardous substances and require care when handling. Paints, varnishes and epoxy solvents now often contain a family of highly reactive chemicals known as isocyanates.
People exposed to isocyanates at work are at greater risk of developing respiratory problems, such as asthma, if they breathe in isocyanate vapours or droplets of resin spray.
There is also a risk of skin conditions if there is regular skin contact with isocyanates.

Jobs that often involve exposure to isocyanates include:

  • painting and powder coating
  • blowing foam insulation
  • manufacture and thermal degradation of many polyurethane products such as polyurethane foam, insulation materials,surface coatings, car seats, furniture, foam mattresses, under-carpet padding, packaging materials, shoes, laminated fabrics, polyurethane rubber, and adhesives.

Worker Safety

Preventing exposure to isocyanates is the critical step in reducing the health hazard. Engineering controls such as closed systems and ventilation should be the principal method for minimizing exposure. Other controls, such as worker isolation, personal protective clothing and safety equipment are also necessary.

Exposure to hazardous chemicals is a significant risk in spray painting and powder coating activities including during preparation (preparing surfaces, tinting, mixing and pouring paints), storage, clean-up and disposal.  The hazardous chemicals that workers may be exposed to include paints, solvents, powders, lacquers, paint strippers, adhesives, surface preparation products, rust converters and rust removers.

Worksafe can review your Health Surveillance program to ensure you are meeting your WorkSafe Isocyanate health surveillance requirements.

Risk to Workers in the Paint Manufacturer Sector

Those  at greatest risk include those who work with spraying isocyanates and volatile isocyanates such as tolulene diisocyanate (TDI).

Three types of workplaces stand out as having the highest risk of isocyanate exposure in Australia

  1. workplaces where isocyanates are mixed with a resin and then sprayed to produce an insulating foam – droplets containing isocyanates are the main hazard because they can be inhaled and absorbed by the body
  2. workplaces where TDI is mixed with resins in the manufacture of foam – isocyanate vapours released during mixing and curing are the main hazard, and
  3. workplaces where two-part polyurethane paints are sprayed, most typically in the painting of motor vehicles.

What an employer needs to do

The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2011, says that you should provide and maintain a work environment in which your employees are not exposed to hazards.  This includes training, information, supervision and personal protective clothing and equipment.

When hazardous substances are used in the workplace, there are specific requirements covering things such as:

  • labelling containers,
  • Material Safety Data Sheets
  • Induction and Safety training
  • Risk assessment and control
  • Health surveillance of your staff

Employers, main contractors and self employed people must ensure that no person at the workplace is exposed to concentrations of isocyanates above the occupational exposure standard.

Controlling Isocyanate exposure hazards in the workplace

Isocyanates are a group of chemicals used in the manufacture of polyurethane plastics, synthetic rubbers, foams, paints, varnishes and adhesives.

The largest volume use of isocyanates is in the production of polyurethane foams. Isocyanate pre-polymers are included in polyurethane paint formulations which, after curing, form durable films.

Isocyanate polymers may also be present in paints including:

  • polyisocyanate
  • isocyanate pre-polymer
  • isocyanate polymer, and
  • polymerised isocyanates

Exposure to isocyanates can occur when aerosols or dusts containing isocyanates are released into the atmosphere during spraying.  Exposure to isocyanates can also occur during sanding of polyurethane paint that is not fully cured, as this activity can generate dusts containing un-reacted isocyanates. Further, isocyanate-containing materials may release isocyanates into the atmosphere when