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According to the American Chemistry Council, solvents are good because they remove residual chemicals off famous paintings after young boys on school field trips deposit chewing gum on them.
That’s the upside. The downside to some solvents is they aren’t as kind to workers’ nervous systems, internal organs and skin as they are to artwork.
Bob Huckle, John Read and Al Johnson, who work at Schweizer Aircraft in Elmira, N.Y., can give you the downside of the solvent story.
These highly skilled members of UAW Local 1752 and their 422 co-workers build small piston and turbine helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles, and will begin soon to outfit Blackhawk and Seahawk helicopters.
“Fifteen years ago, when I got involved in health and safety people were over the top with their use of MEK,” said Huckle, a 35-year veteran loftsman and the local’s president and health and safety chair. “One guy used it to wash his hair with at the end of the work day to get the paint out.”
The solvent Huckle is referring to, MEK, or methyl ethyl ketone, is widely used throughout industry. At Schweizer, it’s used to clean sealants and epoxies off aluminum aircraft bodies, especially the areas where workers weld, rivet or paint.
“I would use five gallons a day of that stuff. I was literally bathing in it,” said Johnson, an assembler with 35 years at Schweizer. “Every time I would put in a rivet, I had to clean the area around it with MEK. I couldn’t wear gloves and rivet at the same time because everything was so sticky and messy.”
“Back when we were younger, we had no idea what this stuff was doing to our bodies,” he said.
At the time, nobody at Schweizer associated their chronic splitting headaches, asthma, flu-like symptoms, dizziness, and general malaise and fatigue with the solvent they were “bathing in” every day at work.
Some started to connect the dots, though.
“I went to the hospital for a CAT scan and an X-ray about something not related to work. That’s when the doctor told me I had scarring of the tissue in my lungs,” recalled Read, a loftsman with 19 years of seniority.
In 1998, Huckle became more aware of the dangers of MEK while serving as a UAW Health and Safety Local Union Discussion Leader. Reducing its usage or eliminating it altogether became a crusade for him.
“One of our members had an especially severe exposure problem. She suffered so much nerve damage from working with MEK that it contributed to her becoming more sensitive to every chemical around her, even outside the plant. She would have problems breathing if she was just around other women’s perfumes,” Huckle said.
This worker left work in 1995 and now is on permanent disability.
Huckle worked for more than a decade to convince management to use less MEK, gathering information about the hazards of the chemical and possible alternatives. His hard work paid off when Schweizer became a subsidiary of Sikorsky Aircraft in 2004.
After learning that the Elmira plant ranked high in terms of the amount of chemicals it spewed into the air by a state occupational health and safety agency, Schweizer’s new management agreed to work with Local 1752 to get their numbers down.
Because MEK was so effective as a solvent and the available substitutes required more “elbow-grease” to do the same job, the previous management had been convinced that MEK was good for productivity.
But that’s not what Read observed. “You could just see whenever somebody started working with MEK, there would be a parade of people leaving the area because of the effects it was having on them,” he said.
Even with current management’s cooperation, Huckle still has a problem convincing fellow workers of the risks involved with MEK.
“I guess it’s human nature, but some people are stashing away MEK because they prefer cleaning with it. We still use some of it in the plant, but it doesn’t come in big containers anymore. People ended up using way too much of it that way,” he said.
“Now we get MEK in pre-moistened wipes. That cuts down on the amount being inhaled. We went with Skysol as a substitute because it has a lower vapor pressure. That means people won’t be inhaling it as much,” he said.
Maybe that’ll leave more of the old solvent for artwork.