Working Safely with Solvents
February 14, 2020
A solvent is a chemical substance used to thin or dissolve other solutions, such as paint, adhesives, epoxies, and grease. Contact with solvents can be hazardous to your health, so it is important to know the risks associated with solvents and how to avoid them.
Solvents may be used alone or incorporated into common products. Adhesives, cleaners, paints, thinners, lubricants, degreasers, and PVC glue are examples of products containing solvents. They can be identified by their common chemical names:
- Denatured alcohols
- Distillates of Petroleum, such as gasoline, kerosene, naphtha, and mineral spirits
Contact with Solvents
According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), solvents can enter the bloodstream when they are breathed in, touched or swallowed. Then they can travel through the entire body causing headaches, sleepiness, dizziness, and nausea. Over long periods of time, exposure to solvents can damage the body’s major organs, such as liver and kidney, as well as the nervous, reproductive, and respiratory systems. Long term exposure to solvents is also known to cause cancer.
Breathing a solvent can occur when the solvent evaporates into a vapor. Many have a strong smell, but there are odorless vapors as well. Breathing in solvents can irritate or burn the nose, throat, and lungs. Touching solvents can dry and crack the skin. Ingesting solvents occurs when they are transferred to the mouth when eating and drinking after having handled solvents. This can result in irritation and burning of the mouth, throat, stomach, and intestines.
Preventing Exposure to Solvents
Every employee has the right to a safe workplace. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires employers to educate workers about potential chemical exposure hazards and provide Safety Data Sheets (SDS). The SDS list the chemicals contained in a product and rates them according to how hazardous they are. Category 1 is the most hazardous type. Additionally, employers should:
- Use safer water-based alternatives when possible
- Install ventilation systems that remove dangerous vapors before they reach employees where they could be inhaled. Ventilation systems must be checked by a competent person before employees enter the workspace.
- Provide personal protective equipment, such as gloves, eye protection, and respiratory protection. Respirators must be NIOSH-approved, and all gear must be regularly checked and maintained.
The hazards of working with solvents can be minimized when both employers and employees are aware of the risks and take the right precautions to prevent exposure.
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