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Epoxy Flooring Health and Safety - A Contractor’s View

By Jack Josephsen

Cleaner, safer coating technology has been around for a long time now and I personally find it surprising that many contractors are still happy to use products full of solvents and other nasty stuff.

A few years ago I decided to test my own theories on why this is the case and get the word from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. I approached Peter, then owner of Floor Maestro in Sydney, to give us his view on health and safety matters and the role they play in an epoxy flooring business.

The answers he provided to a few simple questions formed not only an honest evaluation of this issue and its status in the coating industry, but also a great insight into some of the associated challenges facing contractors.

How did you enter the coating industry?

In 1994 I saw my first epoxy floor. I must have seen them before but had never taken any notice. This one was different. My parents retired to the Gold Coast and had a flake floor in their garage. For me, it was love at first sight and I wanted the same product on my garage floor in Sydney. At the time I couldn't find an applicator, so it didn't get done. But the desire to have this product ate at me to the point I gave up 30 years of corporate life to learn the process and offer the floor to the Sydney domestic market.

What were the biggest hurdles?

As a “late starter” in terms of becoming a tradesman, I was initially totally reliant on suppliers' product information and opinions gleaned from those with much more experience than me in the industry. I learnt pretty quickly many suppliers have a tendency to overstate their particular product's capabilities and to be very non-committal and vague when technical and OH&S issues were raised. As far as solvents were concerned, I was told: “You need them to carry the ingredients of your epoxy when it's liquid. They'll evaporate off quickly enough and the smell is just something you have to put up with. Anyway, no one has ever died from it, have they?”

Do health and safety or environmental issues matter to you?

Among applicators, there was, and I believe still is, a culture of loyalty to their own proven system and a reluctance to change. All applicators have seen an SDS. In my opinion most haven't actually read one! With over 600 floors under my belt I include myself in that category.

A cartoon character depicting a contractor trying to read a safety data sheet upside down.

I've never really warmed to the importance of environmental issues. As a city dweller brought up in a middle class suburban household I've never really thought about where resources come from. To me, they've always just been there when you turned the tap or flicked the switch. Generally I've seen the Green movement as attention seeking by unwashed left wing radicals.

I hope that somewhat long-winded introduction will help give some perspective to where I now find myself. Notwithstanding the history above, I think there are three factors which are causing me to at least open my mind to potentially changing my work practices. Firstly, I've just turned 50. Secondly, we are in the middle of a severe drought, and our electricity grid is struggling. Thirdly, I happened to be at a function where a leading conservationist pointed out the limits to some of our common resources, and it made me really think about the world we are leaving the next generation. I have two kids, resources won't be exhausted in my lifetime...but theirs will see some dramatic changes if we keep going the way we are.

So I've started to actually THINK about my work practices. Firstly the solvent issue. If I don't want to inhale foreign materials by not smoking, for example, so why would I not take the same precautions with my job materials? Simple logic really. Then there is the environmental issue. Not really my problem, but whose problem is it? It's a question that on reflection only has one answer - it's everyone's problem.

As an epoxy flooring contractor, why do you resist change?

In my case there is a considerable fear factor. I am a small business which depends almost entirely on recommendation of existing clients. I know my current product works, and despite assurances from manufacturers, still find it difficult to commit. Then there is the issue of familiarity with the product I've used many thousand of litres of. I know the coverage rates. I know the open time, the cure time, the parameters I can push if I need to.

We humans don't like change. We're our own worst enemies. Furthermore, we need legislation to make us wear seat belts, install smoke detectors in our homes and use earth leakage breakers. All of these are passive lifesavers, yet few people voluntarily used them. I bet the same will go for eco-friendly products. Sure, some will embrace them...but the majority will not change their traditional habits.

So here's where I'm at. I'm going to continue to try to be brave and convert to eco-friendly products where their specification is appropriate for my application. I also see another, easier way of converting my business. That is to have my clients MAKE ME change! How? Think about it. When you call a doctor it's because he's a specialist in his field, and you therefore listen to his advice. Same for a plumber, electrician, or gardener. You EXPECT them to give good advice. So when a client calls ME he EXPECTS me to know what I'm talking about. He expects me to present to him all the available alternatives which will fulfil his needs. So I'm going to present him with the appropriate information and I expect he will force me to change. In these days of litigation would you expose your staff to a known carcinogen?

Are you a flooring “doctor”?

I know most people have well-set, often passionate opinions on this wider topic, however before I go I want to highlight one message in Peter’s interview that I think opens up a fresh angle on this discussion: when it comes to the products you use, who should be making the choice?

Yes, you may know your old products back to front and get good results; but, what happens if and when your clients start to demand “cleaner” technology? Do you simply move on to the next job, hoping they accept your products, or do you set the bar higher and aim to become that flooring “doctor” Peter spoke about – a specialist in their field that can give customers excellent results across a broad range of products?  

I'm very interested to hear what other contractors think about the importance of health and safety for epoxy flooring and if they feel any pressure to make a change or offer safer alternatives.

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