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Work Health and Safety Blog

There's so much happening in the world of health & safety. Changes in legislation and requirements, changes in best practice, changes in ... you name it. Here's my take on making it simple. Simply Genius WHS - stop guessing... manage with confidence.

Solvents & thinners - low risk chemicals or killers?

Maralyn Kastel - Thursday, October 25, 2012

Many businesses consider that the solvents and thinners that they use are low risk hazardous chemicals.  However in the right conditions, these chemicals can kill.

Consider this, all volatile solvents have the potential to cause a person to lose consciousness and suffer a cardiac arrhythmia and possible death, particularly when used in an enclosed/confined space or in an area with poor ventilation.

According to WorkCover, NSW, the following chemicals and solvents have been implicated in deaths; toluene xylene, hexane, methyl ethyl ketone, naphthalene, and other petroloeum-based solvents.

A recent safety alert from WorkCover NSW identified that a young worker had died as a result of using a volatile solvent to clean the inside of a boat's hull.  The solvent vapours were inhaled and the solvent absorbed through the skin causing the young worker to lose consciousness and die due to cardiac arrhythmias.

How did this happen?
The solvent used was similar to paint thinner.  It was easy to inhale the vapours and readily absorbed through the skin.  The boat hull had no ventilation to remove the solvent vapours and no respiratory mask or gloves were worn.

What to do?
Make sure that:

  • information, training and instruction is provided to workers relating to the risks in the use of volatile solvents
  • there are current safety data sheets (SDS)  readily accessible to all workers who use hazardous chemicals.  Importantly make sure that workers understand how to interpret and act on the information the SDS
  • there is appropriate PPE such as respiratory mask or gloves
  • workers wear the PPE when using hazardous chemicals
  • there are no ignition sources present such as lighting or electrical equipment
  • Make sure there is enough ventilation to keep the solvent vapours below the exposure standards
Risk controls
  • Substitute the solvent-base cleaner with a water-based cleaner
  • Train workers on how to use the PPE and include PPE in your safety meetings and toolbox talks
  • Identify from the SDS the PPE necessary to prevent absorption
  • Monitor the risks and consult with workers regularly as well as doing refresher training.
Related Toolbox Talks

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