Protecting against paint failures and hazards

November 2016 — Sometimes, paint may not cover as well as expected, or it may pose potential hazards. Property and facilities managers must be aware of and account for the potential problems that cause paint failures and hazards.

Paint Failures

Paint failure can cause problems for property and facilities managers. Causes for defects in the paint film include improper paint formulation, substandard materials, and inadequate surface preparation.

The paint chemist manages paint formulation. Surface tension variations across the surface of the wet paint film can cause many paint defects. While leaving the chemistry to the chemists, the property or facilities manager should notify the manufacturer and the contractor of significant paint defects that may be caused by improper paint formulation. The manufacturer will often work with the contractor to resolve problems, sometimes making site visits and inspections.

Paint defects caused by substandard materials used in the manufacture of the paint are usually avoided by using paints produced by reputable paint manufacturers. The challenge for the building manager is to control the paint and related materials (for example, thinner, primer, and applicator) used by the contractor.

Proper surface preparation is the responsibility of the painting contractor. With new work, such as drywall partitions, the drywall contractor is responsible for providing a smooth surface. However, the painter must ensure that the surface is clean and ready to accept paint. The painter is also the final judge of whether the area to be painted is sufficiently free of dust and dirt to achieve a satisfactory finish. If either the surface to be painted or the work area is not favorable to an acceptable paint job, the painter should not proceed.

Application of paint to a dusty, dirty, oily, or greasy surface will cause problems with both adhesion and appearance. Failure to sand glossy surfaces on interior or protected exterior surfaces will result in peeling. Failure to use a primer appropriate for the surface and the finish paint may cause adhesion problems. Carelessness and lack of skillful preparation are the major causes of poor adhesion.

Paint Hazards

Paint and its application present three major types of hazards that mandate awareness and prevention: fire hazards, health hazards, and accident hazards.

Fire Hazards

Flammable materials are used in the manufacture of many paints. Ignition can occur from autoignition, as well as in the presence of an ignition source. Autoignition seldom occurs in the normal use of solvents. In his book Solvents, William Ellis states, “The classical hazard with paint materials is the ‘drying oil on a rag syndrome.’ The oil dries by oxidation and gives off heat. If the heat cannot escape, the temperature rises, and the rag catches fire when the oil reaches its autoignition temperature.”

One of the worst high-rise office building fires in the United States occurred in 1991 in Philadelphia. This fire was reportedly started by the spontaneous combustion (autoignition) of linseed-oil-soaked rags left by workers refinishing wood paneling. The blaze took three lives and consumed eight floors of a 38-story building. Proper use, storage, and disposal of all paint materials is vital. Fireproof paint storage cabinets should be used for storing all oil-based paints and solvents.

Whenever a solvent rises above its flash point, there is a fire hazard. The US Department of Transportation categories materials with flash points above 100°F as combustible, and those with flash points below 100°F as flammable. Solvent vapors are heavier than air and can travel along the ground for long distances before diffusing into the air. Solvents should not be used in the presence of ignition sources. In architectural paints, solvents should have flash points above 100°F.

Health Hazards

Inhalation of toxic vapor is the most obvious health hazard presented by solvents. The amount of solvent released to the atmosphere varies from negligible for a water-based paint applied by hand to considerable for an organic solvent-based paint applied by conventional air spray.

Toxicity can have short-term or long-term effects. The short-term effects—such as nausea, headaches, and dizziness—are generally known. The long-term effects continue to be examined. Suspicions of carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic effects from solvents have grown. The best source for information on the hazards of a material is the material safety data sheet (MSDS), which is available from the supplier of the product.

Air pollution regulations continue to be enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and individual states to control the release of organic solvent vapors into the atmosphere as paints are applied. Most solvents contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which combine with oxygen in sunlight to form ozone, a substance poisonous to humans. Regulations seek to reduce ozone, and some states have laws limiting the use of architectural paints to those with solvents low in VOCs.

One goal of the LEED Green Buildings initiative is to use materials with low VOCs. It should be the goal of every property or facilities manager to only use low-VOC or no-VOC paint in a building as part of a commitment to sustainable building practices.

Lead-based paints, commonly used in older urban buildings, are a potential hazard to occupants. In residential buildings where there is a lack of ongoing maintenance, occupants—especially young children—have ingested chips of lead-based paint. This often causes permanent health damage.

In addition to providing proper ongoing maintenance, a building manager must have paint chip samples tested to determine their composition. To replace deteriorated lead-based paint, perform a complete removal and refinishing.

Accident Hazards

Accident hazards include slips, falls, and impacts from dropped items. Paint application equipment presents many potential hazards within the work area. Paint containers and drop cloths are tripping hazards. Ladders and scaffolding present opportunities for workers, paints, and tools to fall.

As in any activity, a neat and clean workspace is a safe workspace. Paint solvents should be kept in sealed containers, in fireproof cabinets, and reused. Solvents should never be dumped into the public sewer system, but should be brought to municipal waste facilities for proper disposal. Oil- and water-based paints that are old or nearly expended should be allowed to dry out before being disposed of.

This article is adapted from BOMI International’s course The Design, Operation, and Maintenance of Building Systems, Part I, part of the RPA and FMA designation programs. More information regarding this course or the new High-Performance certificate courses is available by calling 1-800-235-2664. Visit BOMI International’s website,