Protecting Workers and Homeowners From Floor Finishing Hazards

In September, 2004, four floor finishers were applying sealer to the stairs of a home in Somerville, when a spark ignited the sealer's vapors. A fireball shot down the stairs killing worker Toan Bui immediately. Coworker Ha Vu died the next day after experiencing third-degree burns on 100 percent of his body. The other workers survived severe burns and injuries. Less than a year later, Tinh Huynh was killed in a similar fire in Hull. All these workers were Vietnamese immigrants and all were victims of highly flammable "lacquer sealers" marketed almost exclusively to immigrants in the hardwood floor industry.

"It used to be that everyone was focused on how quickly we can we get the job done. But a lot of people are killing themselves—so now people are thinking: 'how can we do this safely?'"- Eric Redding, Apprenticeship Director of Painters Local 35

In response to these life-threatening dangers, MassCOSH and the Dorchester Occupational Health Initiative (DOHI), launched an investigation followed by an education and advocacy campaign. A worker safety collaboration focused on the ethnically diverse community of Dorchester, DOHI also includes Viet-AID, UMass Lowell, Dorchester House Multi-Service Center, Codman Square Health Center, Cape Verdean Community UNIDO, New Ecology Inc. and the Bowdoin Street Health Center.

The investigation confirmed that the Somerville and Hull fires were not unique and that lacquer sealer is very hazardous:

    • Since 1995, Boston alone has suffered over 25 fires directly attributed to hardwood floor installation and refinishing.
      These fires have caused an estimated $1.5 million worth of damage in the past 10 years.
      Floor finishing can also cause health problems such as headaches, dizziness, and even damage to the nervous system when people inhale the solvents over a period of time.

Safer alternatives available

Consultation with experts in the industry showed that lacquer sealers are not even necessary for finishing floors and that most U.S.-born finishers in Massachusetts avoid using them because they are so dangerous. Adding to the problem is the lack of information to notify workers and consumers on the risks of using these lacquers.

Besides the fire hazard from using lacquer sealers and a few other flammable products, health problems can result from exposures to vapors from the solvents in certain floor finishes. After further investigation, the group learned that there are alternatives to these "solvent-based" or "oil-based" finishes. The substitutes are made mostly of water. A series of laboratory test conducted by the Toxics Use Reduction Institute showed that while water-based products contain toxic ingredients, they still have many benefits, including:

  • They usually produce much lower levels of vapor in the air, making them safer than oil-based finishes.
  • Some water-based finishes dry faster, allowing companies to complete more jobs in less time.
  • High-quality water-based finishes are more durable than oil-based finishes.

This information, however, has not reached many smaller floor finishing contractors, many of whom believe that water-based products produce an inferior finish.

Meanwhile, Viet-AID found that 127 of 144 floor finishing contractors registered in Boston have Vietnamese surnames. After conducting interviews with floor finishing contractors and employees, the organization learned that workers often don't receive safety training or materials in Vietnamese. "So many members of our community are affected by this," said Hiep Chu, executive director of Viet AID.

On September 29, 2005 MassCOSH and its DOHI partners published a floor finishing safety report, releasing it at a briefing at the Massachusetts State House. The first of its kind, "Protecting Workers and Homeowners from Wood Floor-Finishing Hazards in Massachusetts" called for a sweeping effort by employers, government, and communities to address not only the critical problem of fires but the health concerns associated with floor refinishing.

Policies promoting safer products, procedures sought

Between January and April, 2006, MassCOSH convened a task force, comprised of floor product suppliers, trade unions, community and safety groups, to develop policy recommendations. Experts from the state's Department of Public Health, Division of Occupational Safety, and Office of the Fire Marshal served as advisors.

Task Force member Michael Le, one of three suppliers to Vietnamese-owned floor finishing businesses, called the deaths a "wake up call." "I suddenly realized that all these customers were being exposed to these safety hazards," said Le, who owns Capital Wood. "I understood their language, I understood their need to earn a living . . . and I had to play a proactive role to protect these contractors and home owners."

The task force unanimously called for two pieces of legislation

  1. HD2415: to prohibit the use and sale of highly flammable floor finishing products (those with flash points of less than 100 degrees) and
  2. SD0122: to require that floor finishing industry owners and employees become trained and certified; that owners designate a certified worker to be responsible for completing a safety checklist; and that companies provide a floor finishing safety fact sheet to be signed by the consumer.

Representative Martin Walsh (Dorchester) and Senator Patricia Jehlen (Somerville) filed the two floor finishing bills in January, 2007.

As the bills progress through the legislature, MassCOSH, DOHI and the task force are continuing their work on several fronts. The groups are developing materials that would both be necessary if and when the bills are passed (such as the safety checklist and the consumer safety fact sheet), promoting public awareness of the hazardous nature of this industry and distributing consumer fact sheets to first time homebuyer programs. They have also launched training programs for floor finishing workers. To encourage the transition toward safer products, they also sponsored tests of water-based sealants.

For those at MassCOSH, memories of the fires in Somerville and Hull are a constant reminder of the urgency of their cause. "We have a monumental opportunity to make sure the lives of these floor finishers are not forgotten by taking action to protect workers and consumers," said MassCOSH Executive Director Marcy Goldstein-Gelb.