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Regulation roulette

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Local, state and federal agencies establish safety and environmental regulations for finish shops — and for cabinet, furniture and refinish shops that do their own finishing. You are required to abide by these regulations or you could be fined.

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There are three major regulatory categories: employee safety handled by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; environmental air quality regulated at all levels of government; and fire safety overseen by the local fire marshal.

If you have a factory or large shop, you need to contact each of these authorities and learn their rules. It’s not worth the risk to be ignorant. You have too much at stake.

This article is aimed primarily at smaller shops (10 employees or less) that do their own finishing.

While it’s easy for me to tell you that you should get in touch with the regulators, I know from my own experience and from countless conversations I’ve had that it’s typical for small shops to avoid contacting regulators for fear of what it might cost them to be in compliance. It’s common for these shops to attempt to coast along under the radar, hoping they are too small with which to be bothered. This despite the fact that most shop owners want their employees to have safe working conditions, favor a cleaner environment and surely don’t want a fire.

Search tips For information on finishing regulations, the Internet is your best bet. But where to start? Here are a couple of quick tips to start your search: ? For OSHA, search the term “OSHA + the name of your state” because OSHA assigns enforcement to the states. You might also find an independent company in your phone book under “safety consultants” or something similar that can perform an onsite inspection. ? For air quality, search for “Department of Environment Quality (DEQ) + your state or city” or “air quality regulations + your state or city.” ? For fire codes, I haven’t found the Internet to be of much specific help. It’s best to call or visit your local fire marshal.

My goal when I began researching this article was to try to answer the question: What do you need to do to be in compliance with all the regulations? I wanted to give you the information you need so you won’t be fined if you do get discovered and inspected. As you will see, I was not entirely successful, but hopefully I’m putting you on the right path.

OSHA and workplace safety

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was established in 1971 under the U.S. Department of Labor. Since then, worker deaths have declined from about 14,000 per year to around 4,000 while the number of workers has nearly doubled.

If you are an employee, you should love OSHA. If you are an employer, you probably resent the extra effort and money you have to spend, but keeping your employees safe is definitely the best policy.

OSHA is pretty good at telling you what you need to know and, with access to the Web, it’s easy to find out. Simply search for “29 CFR 1910,” which is the standard that deals with worker safety.

The standards most relevant to finishing operations are:

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• 1910.94: Ventilation

• 1910.106: Flammable and

Combustible Liquids

• 1910.107: Spray Finishing Using

Flammable and Combustible


• 1910.134: Respiratory Protection

• 1910.1000: Air Contaminants

Establishing Permissible

Exposure Limits (PEL) to

Various Solvents

• 1910.1052: Methylene Chloride

(specific to refinish shops)

• 1910.1200: Hazard Communication through Training

Other sources for safety information include your finish, spray booth and spray gun suppliers. Some companies have people on their staff trained to advise you on these topics.

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Here are some specifics to take note of:

• Chemicals can enter the body in three ways: through inhalation (breathing), through ingestion (swallowing) and through the skin. The two that apply to finishing are inhalation and skin contact, so good exhaust systems, respirators and gloves are essential.

• Excessive contact with most solvents contained in coatings can have negative short-term effects such as eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness, confusion, fatigue and nausea. Long-term effects include reproductive problems, central nervous system disorders and damage to the lungs, liver and kidneys.

• Even less toxic water-based finishes can be a problem because the atomized particles can coat the lungs.

• Once you, as the employer, have your exhaust and protective glove and respiratory equipment set up, your ongoing responsibility is training, including keeping records of the training.

Environmental air quality

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Cleaning up the air is the responsibility of the Environmental Protection Agency, which was established at the end of 1970 under the Clean Air Act. This agency has delegated most enforcement measures to the states, which often strengthen the requirements. Some local areas, prominently the Los Angeles basin, establish stricter regulations.

Of the six large categories of pollutants identified, the one that affects us as wood finishers is ground-level ozone (smog). The formation of this ozone is the result of a chemical reaction between most volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides.

Most of the solvents we use are non-compliant (smog creating) VOCs. Nitrogen oxides are formed in high-temperature combustion common in power plants and internal combustion engines.

The EPA is also concerned with another type of solvent called HAPs, or hazardous air pollutants. These are the solvents that are hazardous to breathe. There is, of course, a large overlap between non-compliant VOCs and HAPs. Most solvents are both.

While OSHA deals with these hazardous-to-breathe substances in the shop, the EPA controls them in the atmosphere — in the exhaust that leaves the shop.

Another difference between OSHA and air-quality regulations is that OSHA regulations are essentially the same for everyone in the country, while clean-air regulations vary depending on location. This makes it impossible to put a number on the amount of non-compliant VOCs or HAPs you can exhaust before you get in trouble. It varies with location.

Your familiarity with VOCs probably centers on the changes we’re all experiencing in the finishes we use. Some areas of the country, notably the West Coast, the upper Midwest and the Northeastern states, have combined into a group called the Ozone Transport Commission and set the maximum non-compliant VOC content that can be included in various stains and finishes. Some metropolitan areas have joined in with their own upper limits.

In some cases, manufacturers are able to comply with these regulations by substituting “exempt” solvents for the ones they previously used. One of the most widely used exempt solvents is acetone. Acetone is not classified as a polluting solvent.

The main problem with acetone is that it evaporates very rapidly, which has a major impact on the drying of the finish, especially when a lot of the solvent is added to bring the finish into compliance.

Gray areas

You might be experiencing adjustment pains associated with changing to the stains and finishes now available in your area. You might even find that high-solids coatings and water-based finishes are your only choices.

But the changes to the products are not your problem (you can adjust to them). They are the manufacturers’ problem gaining compliance with local or state environmental regulations.

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Buying and using these products to do your finishing won’t have an impact on your compliance. Your compliance depends entirely on how much non-exempt VOCs and HAPs you exhaust into the atmosphere. It depends on how much stain and finish you use that might be compliant but still contain some bad solvents.

And it’s here that the EPA and state and local enforcers are very unfriendly. It’s almost impossible for you to find out what the limits are without bringing in government inspectors.

One website I have found to be is helpful is This website provides general information and links to state and local sites where you can access the regulations that affect you.

The problem occurs when you go to these websites. I have not tried all 50 states, but I think it is unlikely that you will come away from any of these websites with the knowledge of what you can and can’t do.

An example: One state says you can exhaust up to 10 lbs. of non-exempt VOC solvent (2 or 3 gallons of lacquer, much more of water-based finish) a day “total” without having to get a permit — in other words, without having to get an inspector involved (though you are required to keep records of the amount of VOCs and HAPs you are emitting).

So let’s say you spend a week or two building a large set of cabinets and then a day or two spraying them out. Can you average out? What does “total” mean? I couldn’t find the answers.

Some state websites are easier to understand than others, but they all typically end up telling you that you need to contact a regulatory office. In other words, put yourself on the map. So you’re caught in a Catch-22. You want to be in compliance, but you can’t find out how to do this without exposing yourself to inspections, which could lead to fines.

I don’t see why it would be so hard for a state or local department of environmental quality to allow you to type “finish shop,” “cabinet shop,” “wood shop” or “refinishing shop” in a search box and be taken to a list of simple requirements. (It’s rare that a state even mentions our kind of shops.)

For example, the website could state that if you emit less than 10 lbs. of non-exempt VOCs or HAPs a day, on average, you don’t have to do anything except keep records. If you emit more, you need a permit. Here are the permit levels and what you need to do.

We’re all environmentalists. We all want clean air, clean water, etc. We also want to abide by the law. Don’t make it so hard.

Fire safety

Most fire marshals follow the recommendations of the National Fire Protection Association. You can read what is required for a finish shop online by searching for the term “NFPA 33,” which is the standard for spraying flammable or combustible materials.

To get the most recent standard, you might have to pay for it. But you can read an older version from 2000 for free. It should get you into close compliance with anything your fire marshal will require.

You should also be able to get some help from your spray booth supplier.

Here are some of the areas you should be concerned with:

• The location of your spray booth or spray room

• How the booth or room is constructed

• Electrical and other sources of ignition

• Ventilation, especially makeup air for your spray booth

• The safe storage and handling of all flammable and combustible materials

• Having adequate portable fire extinguishers on hand and keeping them current

• General cleanliness

These all make sense and you should do them anyway, whether or not you want to talk to the fire marshal.

A typical commercial spray booth.

Refinish shops

Refinish shops are finish shops with stripping facilities added. Stripping usually requires a solvent, which traditionally is methylene chloride.

In the last three decades, methylene chloride has come under attack as a possible carcinogen. I have written in these pages (March 2003) that the evidence for this is quite suspect. In fact, there is no evidence that methylene chloride causes cancer in humans.

Nevertheless, this is the way it is, and you might be limited in the stripping solvent you can use. The most common strippers that aren’t either methylene-chloride-based or highly flammable are based on n-methyl pyrrolidone (NMP). This solvent is effective, but it’s slow and more expensive.

Your best source for up-to-date information is your stripper supplier.

Bob Flexner is author of “Understanding Wood Finishing.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue.

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