New Zealanders working in the car crash repair industry are at a greater risk of solvent exposure-related health risks than other blue collar workers, new research has found.

Workers exposed to solvents in the vehicle collision repair industry are at greater risk of adverse health effects compared with construction workers, a study involving Massey University's Centre for Public Health Research has confirmed.

Very little research has focused on solvent exposures and health in New Zealand workers before Massey University's Centre for Public Health Research study.

Research officer Samuel Keer says studies from overseas have shown workers regularly exposed to solvents have an increased risk of adverse effects on the brain and nervous system.

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And those working in the vehicle collision repair industry - spray painters and panel beaters - may be particularly at risk.

He carried out the study of 370 collision repair industry workers, from 175 workshops throughout the North Island, and compared them with a reference group of 215 construction industry workers who'd had low or no exposure to solvents.

Using a comprehensive questionnaire, data was collected on symptoms of neurotoxicity, and also directly tested cognitive function, including tests of short-term memory, concentration and reaction time.

The findings, published in four separate journal articles, showed collision repair workers were "significantly more likely" to report symptoms related to solvent exposure than the construction workers.

Symptoms included trembling of hands, mood problems, sleep disturbances and memory and concentration problems.

"They also scored significantly lower on a range of cognitive tests, which suggests effects may be more severe in some workers," Keer said.

Airborne exposure levels were below safe levels according to the workplace exposure standards, but did not necessarily represent the total solvent problem, Keer said.

"It is possible that skin exposures, or short-term, intense 'peaks' in exposure may be more important," he said.

The study also found that the use of respirators and gloves reduced the risk of neurotoxicity by up to 90 per cent, and a range of workplace characteristics and practices were associated with increased exposure levels.

"The research has shown there is still a problem in this industry and provides some indication of where improvements can be made, but more evidence is needed to develop effective solutions. That is the next stage," Keer added.

The centre has received additional funding from the Health Research Council to develop a programme of exposure-controls to be rolled out in several collision repair shops.