Mass.: Deaths of Floor Finishing Workers Spark Safety Movement

When you think of the most dangerous occupations, wood floor finishing might not be the first one that comes to mind. But imagine consistently being exposed to respirable wood dust and volatile organic compounds often without any personal protective equipment and working with products that have a flashpoint of 9 degrees.

Since the deaths of three workers in fires caused by the use of highly flammable wood floor finishing products, the plight of floor finishers has caught the attention of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) and other stakeholders in the state. To illustrate the danger that the finishing products commonly known as "lacquer sealers" pose to workers and homeowners, MassCOSH points out that in Boston over the past decade, there have been more than 25 fires directly attributed to hardwood floor installation and refinishing, causing more than $1.5 million in property damage.

After issuing a report in September on the hazards of wood floor sanding and finishing, MassCOSH has made some "pretty historic" strides in ratcheting up protections for floor finishing workers and homeowners in the state, Membership and Communications Coordinator Khadijah Britton told Occupationalhazards.com.

The group formed a task force comprised of floor product suppliers, trade unions, homeowners and advocacy groups, which led to a "groundbreaking" voluntary pact among Boston-area suppliers to halt the sale of highly flammable lacquer sealers.

"They're not just pulling the product," Britton said. "They're communicating to businesses the danger of using these products and the value of using water-based floor finishing products."

The task force also reviewed and retooled a bill introduced in early 2005 by state Rep. Martin Walsh to make sure that the bill which originally aimed to establish licensing regulations for the hardwood floor industry effectively promotes safety and health for workers and homeowners and is accessible to small-business owners of diverse cultural and economic backgrounds. A recent survey found that 127 of the 144 registered floor finishing contractors in Boston have Vietnamese surnames, and all three of the floor finishing workers who died in Massachusetts were Vietnamese.

On May 17, Walsh, a Dorchester, Mass., Democrat, introduced a revamped version of his House Bill 3375, which now includes proposals that:

  • All floor finishing owners and employers become certified and attend safety training.
  • Owners must designate a certified worker to be responsible for reviewing basic safety measures on the job site and completing a checklist ensuring that these measures are in place.
  • Workers have up to 6 months after being employed to become certified and must work under the direct supervision of a certified individual prior to becoming certified.
  • Companies must provide consumers with a floor finishing safety fact sheet that includes information about the different hazards in various types of products.

"We have a monumental opportunity to make sure the lives of these floor finishers were not lost in vain," MassCOSH Executive Director Marcy Goldstein-Gelb said. "By moving forward to replace toxic floor products with safer ones, promoting safety training and ensuring that consumers are aware of their options, we are going to save lives."

Coinciding with the efforts of the task force, Britton added, Massachusetts is expected to reduce the permissible exposure levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in architectural coatings, including floor sealers and finishes. Such a change would lower workers' exposure to VOCs emitted by floor finishing products, MassCOSH explains in its report, but "a variety of floor finishing products that meet or exceed these new standards are still highly flammable."

Lacquer Sealers Not Necessary for High-Quality Finish

As for why anyone would use a product whose vapors can be ignited by something as insignificant as static electricity, Britton explained that lacquer sealer is cheap running about $9 per can, compared to about $40 a can for water-based sealer and "it hides scratches very well."

"It became very popular because of its sheen," Britton said. "It has a very nice shine and texture. And it dries faster about a half-hour as opposed to some other products on the market."

Nonetheless, MassCOSH wants people to know that lacquer sealers are not necessary to produce high-quality floor finishes. The organization recommends water-based sealers, which, MassCOSH says, dry faster than oil-based sealers, are more durable than lacquer sealers, reduce solvent exposure, allow occupants to return to the premises faster and, perhaps most importantly, do not cause fires.

One of the recommendations made in the MassCOSH report is to promote the use of water-based sealers and other safer and healthier floor finishing products through tax credits, grants, low-interest loans and reductions in insurance rates.

That recommendation is part of a larger goal of someday mandating the use of nonflammable floor finishing products with flash points at or above 100 degrees. At the moment, though, Britton emphasizes that any decisions on what products to use or not use "are voluntary on the part of companies and consumers."

"What we're pushing for are highly educated consumers and highly educated companies and we're pushing so it will be impractical to use [lacquer sealers] because the awareness of their incredible dangers will be so high," Britton said. "And hopefully we can spread that throughout the country, acting as an example to other states."

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