Focus Archive

Garages Can Damage Your Health

November 1997
Sheila Pantry, OBE

Garage workers face a very wide variety of hazards as can be seen when their jobs are put under the spotlight. Garage workers, known by a range of other names such as garage mechanic, engine/diesel mechanic, automobile mechanic, bus mechanic, motor or bus repairer, garage hand, motor body repairer are similar to other occupations such as a mechanic in agricultural/farm machinery, construction machinery, earth moving equipment, motor cycle, and plant maintenance.

In many smaller premises a wide variety of repairs operations may be performed whereas others may only be concerned with one trade e.g. specialist motor body repairers.

What are the risks?

The following will illustrate where there are possibilities for accidents to happen.

Accidents using machinery/equipment including lifting equipment, compressed air equipment, including air receivers not properly maintained can cause accidents. Accidental injection of material/compressed air either through the skin or body orifices has also been known. Steam and water pressure cleaners - fatal accidents can be caused by poorly installed and badly maintained machines (see electrical safety below). Note also Rolling roads/brake testing equipment which can cause serious injuries have been caused by operators attempting adjustments during tests.

Accidents - other types

Slips, trips and falls are the cause of many accidents. People are injured for example when they fall into inspection pits - not only those who are unfamiliar with the premises, but also employees who forget the presence of an unfenced pit.

Manual handling - studies of garage mechanics have revealed that many do not know how to lift materials properly. Serious injuries often result from very simple causes.

Electrical safety is also interlinked with fire and explosions risks (see below). Electrical equipment needs to be designed properly for the rough usage it is likely to receive.

Vehicles - accidents involving vehicles are very frequent, including fatalities. Wheels and tyres can cause accidents e.g. when air blasts from over inflating of tyres, contact with rotating wheels during wheel balancing and risks from the welding of car wheels to which tyres are fitted.

Noise is a problem and garages produce noisy working conditions e.g. removing and repairing body panels using pneumatic tools. Likewise noise from air saws, chisels, air grinders and orbital sanders, panel beating and other repair operations using hand tools are variable but generally high, and welding, flame cutting, and paint spraying are also noisy.


There is a widespread potential for work related ill health in garages. Many of the substances require careful storage, handling and control. Chemical safety should be paramount e.g. when Vehicle valeting using proprietary cleaners which often contain toxic (and also flammable) solvents.

Body filling e.g. the thermosetting of unsaturated polyester in a solvent (usually styrene) which is hardened by a catalyst. Mixing, applying and finishing such fillers generates toxic fume and dust; the catalyst is often a corrosive irritant and some are strong skin sensitisers causing dermatitis.

Vehicle finishing using the many paints and solvents which give off toxic (as well as flammable vapours). Some paints contain isocyanates - the vapours and spray mists of which are highly irritant to the eyes and respiratory tract and may cause asthma.

There is the potential asbestos risk among mechanics who repair/adjust brakes. Exposure to petroleum derived substances including solvents is well known. There have also been studies showing that there can be a link between bladder cancer and auto/truck mechanics, although the risk is not thought to be substantial.

Other problems could occur because some vehicle parts contain asbestos, though with newer vehicles this is probably much less than previously. Cases of asbestos related cancer have been reported in garage workers. Brake and clutch linings have the worst potential especially during cleaning and grinding. There is also dust whilst sweeping the floor in areas where this work is undertaken.

Think about the dangers also when contact with used engine oils - frequent and prolonged contact may cause dermatitis and other skin disorders including skin cancer.

Fumes from petrol, and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) fuelled vehicles are toxic and can quickly reach harmful concentrations (especially from cold or intermittently run engines). Harmful fumes and gases generated during welding can occur including those from primer and paint layers, underseal and from lead in car bodies. f) Arc welding can cause exposure to direct and reflected ultra violet light and infra red rays.

And don't forget that Vibration White Finger (VWF) can occur from vibrating tools used in body repair. VWF is the result of impaired blood supply to the fingers.

Fire/Explosions and Major Hazards

Many of the materials used which can cause fires/explosions also have toxic risks and have implications for electrical apparatus, both of which are covered by other sections of the guidance. Work on petrol tanks in particular has caused many serious burns, numerous fires and some deaths in the UK. Flammable vapours from petrol, paints and solvents are heavier than air and they accumulate in vehicle inspection pits in ignitable and explosive concentrations.

Spills from petrol can also occur when fuel lines are damaged or when fuel systems are being checked. Other fires have occurred when petrol is drained into unsuitable containers. Vapours can be ignited a considerable distance from the position where a spill originally occurred. Vapour may also be contained within clothing onto which petrol has been spilt.

Batteries both during and after charging give off hydrogen which is an easily ignited and explosive gas.

Hazards will also arise from any flame cutting and welding operations since these operations are often undertaken close to flammable materials such as trim, carpets, upholstery, and petrol in tanks or fuel lines. The storage and use of flammable gas cylinders also requires careful thought if fires/explosions are to be avoided.

What are the preventative measures?

Looking at the range of potential accidents and assess the risks. Consider what preventative measures need to be installed in your garage and for example look at:

Motor vehicle repair workshops can vary enormously in the work which they tackle. The information given in this note therefore cannot cover every eventuality, and it is advisable to consult additional references as necessary - see below.



International Labour Office, Safety in the use of chemicals at work. An ILO code of practice Geneva, ILO 1993 ISBN 92 2 108006 4

International Labour Office, Safety and health in the use of chemicals at work: a training manual by Abu Bakar Che Man and David Gold. Geneva, ILO 1993 ISBN 92 2 106470 0

Health and Safety Executive Essentials of health and safety at work, UK, HSE Books, Sudbury. 1994 ISBN 0 7176 0716 X (Note that this booklet also lists other useful reference material)

Royal Society of Chemistry, Dictionary of substances and their effects, UK, RSC, 1992 - 1994 (7 volume dictionary) also available Online.

Health and Safety Executive, Step by step guide to COSHH (Control of substances hazardous to health) assessment, HS(G) 97. UK, HSE Books, Sudbury. ISBN 011 88 6 379 7

Health and Safety Executive Getting to grips with manual handling problems, UK, HSE Books, Sudbury. ISBN 07176 0622 8

Health and Safety Executive Manual handling: solutions you can handle, HS (G) 115. (A book of case studies on solutions to upper limb disorders and other ergonomic problems) UK, HSE Books, Sudbury. ISBN 07176 0693 7

Health and Safety Executive Work related upper limb disorders - a guide to prevention, HS (G) 60. UK, HSE Books, Sudbury. ISBN 0118855565


Health and Safety Executive Health and safety in motor vehicle repair, HS(G) 67. UK, HSE Books, Sudbury. ISBN 011 885671 5 (This booklet gives additional, very useful information to that stated in the note)

Health and Safety Executive Health and safety in tyre and exhaust fitting premises, HS (G) 62. UK, HSE Books, Sudbury. ISBN 011 885 594 8 (See remarks above re HS(G) 67)

Computerised Information

SilverPlatter has a range of CD-ROMs which give a wealth of information on health and safety information. These CD-ROMs are OSH-ROM which gives bibliographic information, OSH-CD and FIRE-CD which give the full text of publications and legislation.

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