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Creating the Safer Body Shop

Let’s face it. Body shops can be dangerous places. Cutting, painting, sanding, bending, hammering. All can lead to unintended injuries without adequate safeguards. 

But the greatest threat of all to body shops? Fire. The fact is, there are few businesses that experience fire more frequently than auto body shops. This is due to the wide array of flammable paints, primers, fillers, fuels, oils, cleaning solvents and chemical solutions on hand. 

The question isn’t how quickly you’re going to eliminate these products to make your shop a safer place (you’re not.) The question is, how do you carry on with the business of paint and body works as usual, while still ensuring you, your employees and your livelihood aren’t threatened with potentially dire consequences?

Yes, You Need a Plan

Here’s something a lot of body shop owners may not know but might find more than a little shocking: most body shops that experience a large-scale flash fire will never open their doors again. You read that right: never open again. 

Do you have adequate insurance coverage so you’ll have the resources to rebuild? Check to make sure, but yes, probably. Here’s the catch: that’s not going to happen overnight. What if it takes a year or more to open your doors for business again? Then you may find your customers have moved on to other shops. And your best employees? Also gone, forced to find new employment. The bottom line is, that for every day you’re not back up and running, you might be set back a week or more from regaining the prosperous, growing business you once had. If ever. 

Clearly, doing everything you can to protect yourself from the ravages of fire is essential. With a few ideas, a little organization and some upfront investment, you can develop and implement an extremely effective fire safety plan everyone can live with.  

Getting Started

Before you can effectively protect your shop and employees from fire, you must start with the basics:

  • Develop a fire safety plan and train your employees in its workings. Fire safety needs to embrace the importance of prevention.
  • Recognize potentially dangerous situations which could cause a fire. 
  • Know your local fire codes and personal safety responsibilities, including those mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

We’ve included some further safety tips to take you a little further. While this list is by no means comprehensive, our goal  is to help you identify hazards in your shop, so you can better take action.

Install the Right Fire Protection Equipment

Are you properly equipped to prevent significant fire damage? At a minimum (and often by statute), your shop should be equipped with the following pieces of fire protection equipment. Some require a larger investment than others, but when you consider what’s on the line each makes a lot of sense. 

  • Smoke alarms. Smoke alarms emit a loud audible warning when smoke or intense heat is sensed nearby, giving you more time to get help and move people outside.
  • Automatic sprinklers help keep fires under control long enough to limit fire damage to vehicles and your building structure, as well as increasing evacuation time.
  • Dry Chemical Extinguishers/ Carbon Dioxide fire extinguishers are multipurpose fire extinguishers that help put out Class A, B, and C fires. Be sure every welding cart includes one.

Keep Your Place Clean

One of the most effective and easiest ways to make your shop safer is following good housekeeping habits. If there’s an oil spill, don’t let it sit; clean it immediately using an appropriate loose absorbent product

Take out the trash every day, removing a source of combustion and fuel. Oily rags or shop uniforms on-site? Keep them in a CSA-listed, closed metal container with self-closing lids. You’ll reduce the likelihood of spontaneous combustion until you can dispose of or launder them.

Store With Safety in Mind

Storage habits that factor in safety go a long way in helping to prevent fires. Combustible liquids should only be stored in approved flammable liquid storage cabinets. Keep flammable liquids and other materials well away from heating sources, such as furnaces and hot water heaters and space heaters. Loose tires lying around can magnify a fire beyond control. Store them safely away from any potential ignition sources. Mark where your fire extinguishers are mounted clearly and don’t block their access with temporarily stored items.

Label Welding Tanks Properly

All the tanks for your welding fuels must be clearly and properly labeled. Store them away from heavy traffic areas and make certain they’re always chained securely so they cannot tip over.

Establish Specific Task Areas and Zones

Welding or cutting should be performed in areas free of combustible materials. An inspection of the area should be performed before leaving work and frequently during a 30-minute period after the welding operation has ended. Be particularly vigilant when using portable welding equipment to be sure it is used in a safe environment. Make sure hoses are in good condition and a fire extinguisher is no more than 15-20 feet away.

Beware of Faulty Electrical Equipment

Improperly grounded or damaged electrical equipment can be an unexpected source of fire (and injury.) Be sure your equipment is grounded and operating properly. If not, discontinue use and remove the damaged equipment. Inspect and maintain battery charging equipment and keep combustibles far away from it. Only use extension cords if needed and make sure they are in good condition. You’re best off not using portable space heaters that are powered electrically.

Protect Against Special Hazard Fires

When you’re painting, make certain you’re doing so in approved spray booths, equipped with automatic fire-suppression equipment. Check that spray booth ventilation is working as designed. Clean filters, ducts and interior walls of the booth. Operate the ventilation system for a period of time after painting to remove residue vapors and paint. Implement effective hot-work procedures to prevent sparks from igniting combustibles during cutting and welding work. Inspect hydraulic lifts for leaks and repair immediately if a leak is present. Keep solvent tanks clean and maintained and make sure the lid closes securely.

Implement Fire Prevention Policies

Train staff in the proper use of fire extinguishers and consider enforcing a no-smoking work policy, or at least have a single outside smoking area with butt-smothering ash receptacles. Conduct weekly self-inspections, correcting any hazards found in inspection, and practice daily housekeeping and clean-up duties. Schedule regular preventive maintenance of HVAC and fire-protection systems.

Hand Out Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS)

Manufacturers’ MSDS sheets explain the safest way to use and store various materials. Make sure your staff has ready access to the sheets and that they’ve read through them carefully. This is especially important when using a new liquid, gas or material with which they may be unfamiliar. 

Develop a Fire Safety Plan

Create a fire safety plan for your shop and make sure all employees are familiar with it. Establish a single spot in which everyone gathers in case of fire, so you can be certain everyone is accounted for. Agree on an orderly exit plan and drill your employees on it. It never hurts to do a few practice runs so everyone can be ready if needed. 

Know Your Codes

Another great way to stay safe and in compliance is to know your fire codes. State and municipal building/zoning inspectors, local fire departments and The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) all maintain safety codes written specifically for auto body repair facilities.

The codes are specifically designed to help prevent the start of fires in facilities which face similar situations and minimize the spread and severity of fire in case one does start. Adhering to code requirements shouldn’t be considered a burden, but rather a way to prevent injury, maintain property, and keep jobs intact.  

The OSHA codes dealing with fire protection in auto body facilities cover a range of topics with detailed specifications. Information can be found on sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers, exit route planning and more. You can also contact your local building regulations department and fire department for further details. 

Get Planning, Get Protecting

Protecting lives and livelihoods from fire might seem like a daunting task. But with the right advice and quality products, developing the right solutions for your business is closer than you think. Contact Imperial Supplies, who has helped businesses like yours thrive for more than 60 years. Your Dedicated Account Advisor is ready to help, whenever you’re ready to get started. 

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