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Keeping Up to Code

Saturday, January 1, 2005 - 01:00

Running the safest, most environmentally friendly shop possible shouldn't be just a dream. It should be your goal.

During your teenage years, was there any event more purely joyous than passing your driver’s examination? Sitting in your parents’ car, watching the inspector finalize the paperwork, you had to be thinking, “It’s all over. I’ll never be tested like this again.”

Then one day you opened a collision repair shop. Recurring, scheduled inspections by environmental and safety regulators are now a part of your life—as are the headaches and worries that set in whenever a government inspector walks through your doors, clipboard in hand.

It’s enough to make you consider running a flower shop instead. Or maybe not.

Complying with safety and environmental laws is no easy task, especially in the collision repair industry where the tools of the trade typically run the gauntlet from deadly, flammable toxins to flesh-searing, metal ripping heavy equipment. Further complicating this scenario, regulations get updated every year. Little wonder even the best operators often find themselves playing catch-up, wishing to start over fresh with a new, problem-free shop.

Well, Happy Holidays! ABRN is ringing in the New Year by delivering on that wish—at least on paper. We’ll take a look at how you can build the ideal eco-friendly and safe shop from the ground up. In case you think this plan won’t help you, read on. You’ll discover you can apply the same lessons described here to your existing business. You’ll also find that with the right assistance, preparation and diligence, you can maintain a safe, green shop without all the stress.

Expert foundation

The main challenge in building any ideal shop is keeping it accessible, especially when it comes to health and safety. Running clean and safe is a real-world goal, one all of us need to work for. Therefore, as a guide, we’ll use some real world lessons learned by Randy Dagel, owner of Lents Body Shop in Portland, Ore. Several years ago, Dagel decided to move his business to a brand new location. He also decided to rebuild his operation with the goal of creating the most environmentally friendly shop possible.

Dagel started at the planning and design stages by turning to expert builders: architects and engineers with experience designing collision repair shops. “Employing professionals familiar with the collision industry is key,” says Dagel. “They know your business, and they know the laws you must meet.”

After this first group produced preliminary designs for his shop, Dagel turned the plans over to the ecological experts at the Oregon Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for their input. “They were delighted to help,” says Dagel. “They spend most of their time trying to track down shops and work on compliance. When you come to them, it makes their job easier. They’re there to help you.”

Using both groups, Dagel built a shop that provided the most thorough eco-compliant solutions, one with optimized levels of storage, ventilation and drainage.

This same model can be used to target potential safety issues. Simply pass on your plans to regulatory experts from building, safety and labor departments, many of whom probably need to approve your design anyway. Ask for their input on optimizing safety, for example, adding the best possible lighting, warning and accident-prevention systems for your particular operation.

Concerned about the future? These same experts also can set you up with a design that allows you to adapt more efficiently to future regulatory changes. As design and regulatory professionals, they’re going to be familiar with environmental and safety issues that could eventually affect your business. Apply their professional foresight and plan for these changes now instead of playing catch-up later.

Don’t have the funds to build a brand new shop? Don’t fret. Take your current designs and problems to these same experts and ask for input. Creating a cleaner, safer shop might just be a matter of a relatively inexpensive renovation or a restructuring of your current operation.

Keep in mind that most environmental and safety issues start with your business foundation. With the right expert assistance, you can address these issues long before they ever become problems. If that isn’t incentive enough, you’ll also find that following advice from structural professionals can be the first step in fattening your profits. A clean, safe shop invites greater efficiency, motivates employees to put forth their best efforts and prevents costly downtime resulting from accidents and sickness.

Training with a message

Small missteps at work can produce big, possibly disastrous consequences. Even the best employees sometimes misread labels, incorrectly dispose of chemicals or misuse equipment. The frantic work pace at most shops only contributes to these potential problems.

The best preventative here is training, lots of training. Minimize mistakes by maximizing your message that environmentalism and safety are job requirements. This means taking advantage of any and all available environmental and safety training, whether it comes from I-CAR, vendors, state regulatory authorities or elsewhere.

It also means requiring comprehensive training for all of your employees—technicians, clerks, detailers, painters—everyone. True, your office personnel may not be cleaning paint guns or spraying finishes, but they still are at risk from mishandled coatings and other hazards. Help them protect themselves and others with a thorough understanding of all your environmental and safety rules. Also, put a strict training regiment in place for new employees. No one should be on your shop floor until he or she completes this training. Above all, let your employees know that environmental and safety compliance can only be achieved through a team effort. By working together, they can eliminate most potential problems and take care of one another.

To make the most of all this training, implement the training lessons at work. Turn the lessons into shop rules. Next, get personally involved. Monitor your employees to ensure they adhere to regulations and make sure they have access to training information and workplace policies. Your managers and supervisors should be thoroughly familiar with current environmental and safety regulations and offer guidance whenever possible. Also, wherever possible, post reminders of your environmental and safety procedures. Post notices in your storage areas stating what materials can be stored and detailing how they should be stored. In other areas, post signs on approved protective clothing and equipment.

Help encourage the use of protective equipment by keeping adequate supplies on hand. Personally take charge of ordering and stocking this equipment. Some of your employees still not sold on the value of protective clothing? Explain the consequences of not using this equipment to them in detail. Keep on hand training information describing deadly substances like diisocyanates (the leading cause of occupational asthma) and the long-term consequences of breathing in even minor quantities of shop toxins.

Because no shop can ever be 100 percent accident-proofed, prevent small problems from turning serious by keeping updating employees on first aid practices, particularly those used for chemical, burn or electrical injuries. Conduct first aid workshops regularly several times a year. Offer the best available training. Ask a medical professional to do the teaching and see to it that all your employees have experience using first aid measures. Put together a list of emergency steps and review employee responsibilities during accidents. 

Looking to go the extra yard? Consider buying a defibrillator. More and more businesses are opting for these devices since employees can be trained to use them and they do save lives.    

Professional oversight

In his masterwork The Art of War, military strategist Sun Tzu wrote that battles are won and lost before the first shot is ever fired. Preparation always determines the winner. Preparation similarly determines whether you pass inspection long before a regulator ever arrives.

Since professionals conduct inspections and determine compliance, you should employ professionals to take charge of compliance oversight. Management consulting firms keep just such experts on staff—experts who are thoroughly familiar with all the environmental and safety regulations in your area. They can inspect your shop and point out potential problem areas. They also can help maintain your records according to the letter of the law, saving you some real headaches. Where to find them? Check with your local trade association. Ask other operators what firms they use and get recommendations.

For even more professional oversight, use the compliance programs provided by your state environmental protection department. They often provide free inspections and compliance workshops.

Turning to all these experts may seem like overkill. Just keep in mind that when it comes to staying up to code, your goal is staying ahead of the compliance curve. Forming close relationships with experts will maximize your efficiency and help ensure you remain as environmentally healthy and safe as possible.

Products and tools

Since materials and tools are the sources of many of your environment and safety concerns, you might expect manufacturers to give you a hand and produce safer products. Fortunately, they are.

Paint companies, in particular, have turned their attention to developing a variety of low-toxin coatings, water-based and low-VOC paints, for example. Invest in these products. Manufacturers promise no drop-off in performance, and you’ll be protecting your employees and the environment alike. Likewise, contact your other vendors and ask for similar green products—adhesives, cleaners and degreasers that pose minimal health concerns.

When it comes to eco-sensitive equipment, buy the best. Purchase top-of-the-line paint booths, high-pressure, low-volume (HVLP) spray guns and oil-water separators that provide the highest levels of performance and environmental protection. The same goes for storage containers, protective clothing and breathing equipment. In the short run, you’ll pay more, but ultimately you’ll reap the rewards that come with providing a healthy work environment.

The same rules apply to safety. Look for materials and equipment that provide maximum protection from accidental burns, exposure to toxins, electrocution, etc. Stress to your vendors that safety is your highest priority.

Final word: The will is the way

There’s no great secret behind what it takes to stay up to code. Approach this issue as professionally as you do any other segment of your business. Get directions from the experts and institute their recommendations. Then devote the necessary time and energy to keeping these changes in place. Finally, use every advantage at your disposal.

It’s the same lesson you needed to take away from that driver’s exam all those years ago. Do your homework and act properly—out of habit—and inspection day will be just like any other day. No sweat.

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