Technician Health and Safety: The Most Important Tool You'll Ever Own

Technician Health and Safety: The Most Important Tool You’ll Ever Own

The life of an automobile technician is filled with many short- and long-term health hazards. The health offenses that I can recall throughout my career include: cuts to the hands, arms and face; burns on my hands and arms; flying debris in my eye; squirting fluid in my eye; breathing car-generated dust; breathing excess car exhaust; falling onto the concrete floor; dropping heavy objects onto my feet; working through back pain; hitting my head on the car hood and the rack lift arms; submerging my hands in benzene-laced solvents; and working with cracked, bleeding knuckles.

Man, now that I’ve written them all down, I’m surprised that I’m still alive.

I’d love to know how many of you can relate to my list, and perhaps even add to it. Come on; you’ve gone to the E.R. for some of these items, haven’t you?

In the shop, where we all make our living, we often assume unnecessary risks each day that could shorten our work day, or our working career. Statistics bear this out.

According to the latest report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), approximately 4.7 million injuries and illnesses were reported in private industry during 2002. The rate of injury and illness incidents for Automotive Repair and Services industries is 4.3 cases per 100 full-time workers. Total injuries for the following categories under Automotive Repair were listed: Lifting injuries – 1,028, Repetitive motion injuries – 213, Exposure to harmful substance or environment – 452, and Transportation accidents – 647. I would suggest that these numbers are painfully low; these are data that were reported.

The BLS even lists 87 fatalities from workplace injuries in Automotive Repair and Maintenance from 2003 data. Ten were from transportation incidents, 33 were from assaults and violent acts, 21 were due to contact with objects and equipment, 21 were due to falls, eight were from exposure to harmful substances or environments, six were due to fires, and nine were attributed to explosions.

The BLS reports that approximately 705,800 cases of workplace injuries and illnesses (32%) were the result of overexertion or repetitive motion. Specifically, there were:

367,424 injuries due to overexertion in lifting (65% affected the back); 93,325 injuries due to overexertion in pushing or pulling objects (52% affected the back); and 68,992 injuries due to overexertion in holding, carrying or turning objects (58% affected the back). Totaled across these three categories, 47,861 disorders affected the shoulder.

Low-back pain is common in the general population: lifetime prevalence has been estimated at nearly 70% for industrialized countries. Data from a national insurer indicate that back claims account for 16% of all workers’ compensation claims and 33% of total claims costs.

Based on information from the BLS, an automobile repair shop employee is injured every 15.7 minutes. This can include eye injuries, muscle strains, burns, lacerations or worse.

Even skin care has become a big issue. The costs associated with occupational skin disease are a big problem with big costs. In fact, this problem has a price tag totaling $1 billion, costing U.S. manufacturers alone $350 million every year in medical costs, doctors’ bills, insurance; workers’ compensation; lost productivity; cost of replacing and training workers; and sick leave.

Occupational irritant contact dermatitis is growing. Most workers with damaged skin think this is part of the job, so it goes unreported. As the problem continues, the skin worsens and the costs add up.

Protect Your Hands
I’ll address skin concerns first, because I still see techs who don’t take advantage of the newly designed protection for our skin and joints.

Jessica Levy, president of Levy, Powell & Associates Consulting, and co-owner of Fun and Easy Learning, has become a staunch advocate of technician safety, and has written and lectured on subjects as simple as gloves. Simple, but extremely important.

It seems that there are other techs out there who share my former attitude that “Only Wimps Wear Gloves!” Levy, who over the years has seen many techs suffer through painful hand cuts, rashes and worse, feels that this phrase has become part of the shop culture.

So, in what situation would you wear gloves, and which type will you use?

Levy has discovered through her research that even when techs are willing to wear gloves, some still don’t know which gloves are best for the situation. She has developed a chart to help techs determine which glove is most appropriate for the work he/she is about to do. We’ve included a portion on the chart on page 18. Levy has offered to send the first 30 readers who send an e-mail to [email protected] a complete glove chart courtesy of Fun & Easy Learning. The chart can be hung in the shop for everyday reference.

Although many of us use latex gloves as a one-size-fits-all-situations glove, Levy states that latex is really only good for changing oil and protecting yourself from blood. She says that when working with any of the following items, gloves should be worn for protection:

  • Chemicals: Some chemicals in automotive repair and collision shops can cause skin problems such as dermatitis, redness and pain. Also, chemicals can be absorbed through the skin and affect other parts of the body. Some of these chemicals are carcinogens and over time, can cause cancer.

    Check the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for handling warnings. Nitrile gloves are usually the right glove for handling chemicals.

    Thickness is also important. If you’re using a parts washer, you’ll need thicker mil gloves for proper protection. I recall that some parts-cleaning solvent would melt thin latex gloves, exposing my skin to harsh chemicals.

  • Vibration: Over time and with enough exposure, vibration can cause problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome and hand/arm vibration syndrome.

    These gloves have padding on the palms and help to absorb the impact and vibration from power and air tools.

  • Heat and sharp edges: The burns from heat and cuts from sharp edges are not only painful, but make it easier for chemicals and germs to get into your body. Healthy and uninjured skin on hands and arms helps protect you from chemicals being absorbed.

Skin disease accounts for nearly 40% of all occupational illness cases. This costs American industry $1 billion annually due to lost productivity, medical care and disability payments. Occupational skin diseases are the second most common type of occupational disease, often resulting from exposure to chemical irritants such as solvents and cutting fluids. It not only hinders workers’ performances and productivity, but it also adversely affects their quality of life. One study showed that 75% of patients with occupational contact dermatitis developed chronic skin disease.

It is impossible to avoid all contact with skin irritants, but it is possible to minimize contact and improve skin condition. Even skin cleanser can be an irritant. How? Even light-duty soaps remove natural oils from the skin and can produce some degree of damage. This is why a moisturizer, in addition to a cleanser, is crucial to help replace lost oils and moisture.

“Surgeons of Steel”
According to Safety and Pollution Prevention (, hand injuries are the second most frequent injury in the automotive repair industry, and account for the largest number of lost days by the industry.

Everything the technician works on is with his/her hands. A Nebraska automobile body organization coined this expression for their association’s newsletter, and it represents anyone who works on a car or truck: Surgeons of Steel.

I have noticed that more technicians are wearing padded gloves to reduce the vibration trauma from impact wrenches, and still more are wearing latex or nitrile to keep their skin healthy.

Protect Your Eyes
According to statistics, there were an estimated 276,000 product-related eye injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2001. Thousands of these injuries were related to automotive products such as antifreeze, cleaners and chemicals. Automotive-related eye injuries associated with batteries and chargers accounted for the highest total. There are measures of protection that technicians should follow when working on vehicles, particularly under the hood. I encourage professionals working in the auto repair business to wear safety glasses or goggles when working in the shop area, and especially when jump-starting vehicle batteries.

According to Prevent Blindness America, each working day in the United States, more than 2,000 employees sustain job-related eye injuries, making workplace injury a leading cause of ocular trauma, visual loss and blindness. Of these, 10% to 20% will be disabling because of temporary or permanent vision loss.

Ninety percent of these injuries can be prevented with appropriate protective eyewear. “Many of the injured workers I’ve seen didn’t think they needed to wear eye protection, or were wearing eyewear inappropriate for the job they were doing,” said American Academy of Ophthalmology spokesperson Monica L. Monica, M.D., Ph.D. “Safety eyewear must have ‘ANZI Z87.1’ marked on the frame or lens. Those who work in construction or automotive repair are at particular risk for eye injuries, and really need to wear proper eye protection.”

Levy reinforces this point by reminding us that OSHA insists that employers evaluate their workplace for risks, and provide their employees with information and equipment that will keep them safe. The reality is that safety glasses should be worn in a shop area at all times, because even if you are not working on a hazardous job, your co-worker may be.

Watch Your Back
I can still recall having severe back pain as a young technician. I remember taking medication to kill the pain, but I never received advice about how to prevent the strain from happening in the first place.

If you have never had back pain, good for you! Many Americans will experience back pain during their lives – pain which can prevent a person from working and cost the person income and the business productivity.

Pulled muscles and pinched nerves are common occurrences in automotive shops. If we have weak “core muscles” and if we lift improperly, we can stress the delicate design of the spine. I have seen back injuries send workers home for days, to the hospital E.R., and have known techs who have had their back surgically “repaired.”

Avoiding Injury on the Job
Here is a list of ways you can hurt your back at work (from

  • Lifting too much,

  • Not getting help to lift or move something heavy or awkward,

  • Bending over too far and lifting with the back instead of squatting and lifting with the legs,

  • Lifting while off balance and

  • Twisting with a load.

Youth vs. Experience
Many people think they will always be the same strong kids they were at 18 years of age. Men, in particular in their youth, would just grab something and move it around with no pain or difficulty. If a young person does get hurt slightly, they heal quickly. As we enter the workplace for a career, we may not be working the muscles in our backs as we did when we were young, and as we age the lifting muscles aren’t used as often and don’t stretch as well. Experienced professionals are careful and protect their backs.

Proper Lifting
We have all heard the expression “lift with your legs, not with your back.” Well, there is a reason for this. Smart technicians:

  • Know how much they are lifting;

  • Use perfect form during the lift (they lift with their legs);

  • Wear a lifting belt; and

  • Ask for help when lifting awkward or excessively heavy loads.

Use Leverage Carefully
Lifting isn’t the only way to hurt your back, though. You can try and use leverage, but have your body in the wrong position. While doing an alignment, a person sometimes uses heavy or long tools to get leverage. When using leverage on a wrench or pry bar, be sure you are firmly planted and test that the load is locked down. I’m sure I’m not the only tech that has cracked his knuckles open on the alignment rack, or landed on my posterior because I wasn’t correctly planted.

Protect Your Lungs
Air pollution and air quality are very serious concerns in automotive repair shops. The key areas where pollution and personal risk occur usually are:

  • Brake and clutch repair (where there may be asbestos);

  • Auto body and refinishing (painting) and around brake work – Use a respirator!; and

  • Closed areas where exhaust fumes may collect.

    Levy states that it isn’t just asbestos dust that we need to worry about; silica is just as dangerous.

Many technicians think they are invincible and they allow their lungs and respiratory system to be damaged over a period of time by not using the proper protective equipment for breathing.

Shops generate airborne dusts, solvents, paints and gases that may be inhaled. All can be hazardous. We techs don’t know which vehicles contain asbestos and which don’t. Regardless of the composition of the brake and clutch dust, do you want fine particles lodging in your lungs?

Here are three examples of technicians who are taking appropriate steps to manage the obvious health risks that come with our job:

  1. A tech needs to test an engine repair on a very cold day, so he/she hooks up an exhaust extraction system that vacuums the hazardous carbon monoxide filled exhaust gas and carries it outside the shop.

  2. A brake or clutch technician uses a special brake washing tool to prevent asbestos from getting into the air or onto clothing.

  3. A painter creates an airborne pollutant when a primer or paint is sprayed, so techs use paint booths, filters and personal protective equipment, such as respirators for safety.

Wrapping It Up
Responsible employers want to provide a safe place for you and me to work. However, personal protection equipment is often available, but not used. If you have safety glasses in your pocket, they won’t help you. It is all of our responsibility to understand where there are risks in our shops and to take appropriate steps to reduce, or eliminate, the short- and long-term health risks.

For more information on safety-related issues, refer to the following websites:
Prevent Blindness America:
Safety and Pollution Prevention: Jessica Levy of Levy, Powell and Associates:
Bureau of Labor Statistics:

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