Paint and coatings

Can paints and coatings harm me?

Paints and coatings can contain a number of different substances. Some of these can harm you by causing a number of short and long-term health problems:

  • skin, eye and mucous membrane irritation
  • headaches, dizziness and sickness
  • lung problems
  • effects on the nervous system, blood, liver and kidneys
  • cancer

If not properly controlled, solvents within coatings can also create a serious immediate risk to you because they give off vapours. At high amounts, these vapours can cause headaches, drowsiness and even unconsciousness. Breathing this mix of toxic air can make you very ill very quickly. In some conditions, people can die.

Which paints and coatings can harm me?

Paints / coatings can be made up of many different chemicals. The risks to you will therefore vary. There are a number of things that you should look out for:

  • VOC content – Solvents are used in many coatings (see also Solvents ). They contain different levels of Volatile Organic Compounds (also known as VOC's) which dry and evaporate into a vapour that can be breathed. As a general rule the higher the VOC content, the more you are at risk from the solvents within the coating. All manufacturers are required to put easy to understand labels on their products to show the VOC content.
  • Other nasty substances – As well as solvents a coating will contain a number of other substances. Some of these could also harm you or create a fire or explosion risk. Manufacturers must also label their products to highlight any risks linked to these. For more information see What is a hazardous substance?.

If the labelling does not give you enough information, make sure that you get hold of the safety data sheet – see Chemical safety data sheets.

You do not have to worry about paints / coatings where no symbol or warning phrase is used.

Do I have to think about how I use the paint / coating

Yes. How you apply the paint / coating could be important because it affects how much of it you use over a period of time. You could be at greater risk if you are spraying because it:

  • Allows much more paint to be applied over the same period compared to a brush or roller. This causes a quick build up of high vapour levels.
  • The paint is atomised, or broken down into fine droplets. A greater amount can therefore stay in the air that you are breathing than would be the case if a roller or brush were used. This is particularly so if poor spraying techniques are used.

Breathing this mix of toxic air can make you very ill very quickly. In some circumstances, death may result. However, using a brush or roller can still produce these risks depending upon the paint / coating and where you are working.

Do I have to think about where I use the paint / coating?

Yes. Where you are working can also have a big impact. There is a big difference between working outside and in a small enclosed space. When painting outside, the constant fresh air is usually enough to stop harmful levels of vapours building up.

The more enclosed a space is, however, the worse the vapour build up is likely to be and the better the controls needed.  This is particularly important if you are working with high solvent, toxic and flammable coatings. An enclosure can take many forms. It could be a permanent structure such as a small room in a building, the inside of a tank or within ductwork. However, temporary enclosed spaces can also be created, for example by using sheeting to seal off an area on scaffolding, within a building or around an object

In some situations, you could end up working in a confined space. This is an enclosed area where there could be an immediate risk to your health and safety.  This could be because substances, such as solvents, within the coatings could create a fire / explosion risk or cause you to lose consciousness / suffocate. However, you need to be aware that even if the coating(s) you are using are safe, the space where you are working may not be. For example, there could be a dangerous lack of oxygen or build up of fumes. 

Confined spaces are highly dangerous and people have died in them. Special measures to protect you are needed and must be used! – for information see Confined spaces.

How can I protect myself?

This will depend very much on the type of paint / coating, how you are applying it and where the work is taking place. However, there are some general things that you can do for all work:

  • General Ventilation: Get as much fresh air as possible to where you are working. If indoors open doors and windows. If you cannot do this or the risk from your work / coatings is higher you may need to use some form of mechanical ventilation such as an air mover. This will dilute and remove the harmful air.
  • Cleaning, Mixing and Storage: This should be done in specially set-aside and well-ventilated areas. Coatings should be stored in properly labelled, suitable containers. Keep lids securely on containers when not in use to prevent spillages or any unnecessary vapours escaping. Any spillages should be cleaned up quickly with sealed metal containers used for waste.
  • Hygiene: Good personal hygiene is very important. Hands should be washed, and where needed clothing changed, before eating, drinking or smoking to prevent swallowing any harmful substances.

Do I need to wear a mask / filter when using low risk paints and coatings?

You will not need a mask for most low risk painting jobs involving a brush or roller to apply low VOC paints / coatings. If you are spraying these you may need to wear eye protection and the right mask. In general you should ask your supplier for:

  • a half-face or a full-face mask respirator with replaceable A2P3 filters for short spray painting tasks up to an hour and within a poorly ventilated area
  • a powered (fan-assisted) respirator with a visor and replaceable TH marked A2P3 filters for longer paint spraying tasks

It is also important that these masks fit properly. For more information on masks and correctly fitting them see Respiratory protective equipment at work: A practical guide and the Fit2Fit site.

What should I do if the paint / coating I am using are more high risk?

ALL high-risk work, particularly in confined spaces, requires detailed planning to identify the risks and the control measures needed. If you have any concerns that the steps you are going to take for this work are not good enough you should get expert help before starting.

Where can I get more information about paints / coatings and other risks to my lungs?

Further information about the risk to construction workers from painting is available online.

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