This guest post was written by Tom Considine, MD at Safety Storage Systems, the U.K.’s leading provider of chemical storage and chemical safety solutions. Tom is a highly experienced expert in the field of chemical health and safety. 

Do you work with or are you exposed to solvents in your workplace? Your initial answer may be “no” but only because you may not be aware of the numerous scope of chemicals and hazardous substances which constitute as solvents. Millions of workers are exposed to solvents everyday in their workplace.

Some of the most frequently used hazardous solvents in the workplaces include alcohol, mineral spirits, petroleum distillates, turpentine, benzene, toluene, xylene, perchloroethylene, trichloroethylene, methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), gasoline, and kerosene. Do you use or come into contact with any of these substances in the workplace?

Although usually a liquid, solvents may also take the form of a solid or gas. All solvents are toxic so no matter the quantity or whether the solvent is natural or synthetic, appropriate precautions need to be taken to prevent accident and/or injury.

SAFETY FIRST AND ALWAYS

Solvent safety is a critical consideration for anyone working with the hazardous chemicals, also known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. The vapours emitted by certain paints can cause nausea and dizziness, as well as eye, skin and lung irritation in the short term. Over time these vapours can damage the lungs and respiratory system, as well as cause a form of brain damage, known as ‘Painter’s Syndrome’.

Some solvents can be absorbed through the skin, with repeated contact causing burns or severe dermatitis. Contact with the eyes can cause irritation, inflammation and in extreme cases, blindness. Plus, solvents can easily be ingested, should food, drink or cigarettes become contaminated, which can have long-term adverse health effects.

Solvents are also highly flammable and can be an explosion hazard. A build-up of mist when spraying can rapidly fill a confined space, and the vapours alone contain up to 80% solvents, all of which could ignite from a single spark.

ASSESS. UNDERSTAND. CONTROL.

Always carry out a risk assessment with a health and safety expert. Once you have identified the specific risks posed by the solvents you will be using, you can implement controls to reduce or eliminate them. Assessments should also cover solvent storage and flammables storage, which are just as crucial to workplace health and safety as correct handling and usage procedures.

PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN A CURE

Obviously the best way to mitigate risks is to eliminate or minimise the use of solvents, if possible. Water-based paints or those containing low levels of solvents can often be sufficient and present a much lower risk. If you have to use solvent-based paints, use ones that contain less harmful solvents – try to avoid those classed as sensitizers. If you do have to use these more harmful solvents, consider whether they can be applied with a brush or roller instead, as these methods don’t release as much harmful mist and vapour.

GUIDELINES FOR USING OR SPRAYING SOLVENTS

PEOPLE

  • All staff must be correctly trained to work with solvents with regular refresher training courses facilitated to ensure they maintain best-practice knowledge of using and spraying solvents.
  • Strict protocols for using solvents should be in place and consistently promoted to your team.
  • Guidelines should always be accessible and reminders visible.
  • Keep all unessential people out of the work area – use signage and barriers which indicate that only authorised personnel should access the area.

FACILITIES

  • A first aid station must be easily accessible from each work area.
  • Always provide wash stations within or near to each work area.
  • Never use solvent-based products in a confined space if possible as the risk of injury or accident increases dramatically.
  • If in a confined space, additional precautions must be taken.
  • If using or dispersing solvents outside, consider how the wind will disperse the vapours.

VENTILATION

  • Always ensure the area in which solvents are used or sprayed is well-ventilated – open doors and windows.
  • The higher the risk of the solvent, the greater the level of ventilation required.
  • Use mechanical ventilation for clean air or local exhaust ventilation (LEV).
  • Ensure all extracted air is discharged to a safe place.

EQUIPMENT

  • Always use the most appropriate equipment for the task.
  • If using compressed air, be mindful of mist build-up and its safe dispersal.
  • If using high-volume low-pressure (HVLP) spray guns or airless spraying methods, always check the nozzle is clean and pressure appropriate, to avoid skin contact.

PERSONAL PROTECTION

Always use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE):

Hand protection:    Gloves – single-use, made from nitrile or similar

Eye protection:        Goggles or face shield

Body protection:    Overalls – ideally the disposable  kind

Use the appropriate Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE):

Mild risk:         Half-face respirator with A1P3 filters

Strong risk:         Fan-assisted, full-face respirator with A2P3 filters

Severe risk:         Constant flow air-fed breathing apparatus (BA) with low flow indicator

GENERAL SAFETY

  • No smoking or consumption of food and drink should be allowed in the work area.
  • Use the minimum amount of solvent-based paint required.
  • Always keep solvent containers sealed when not in use.
  • Don’t leave rags soaked with solvents lying around.
  • Always clean equipment thoroughly after use.
  • Never use solvents to remove paint or grease from the skin.

SAFE STORAGE OF SOLVENTS

Failure to store solvents in an appropriate solvent storage cabinet can result in a build up of harmful vapours that could lead to an explosion. It can only take one spark of static electricity to ignite solvent vapour; so making sure to use a certified solvent cabinet with adequate protection in place should be considered essential.

Even if the build up doesn’t ignite, the vapours themselves can be highly toxic, as outlined above, so it’s important to always store your solvents appropriately. A flammable liquid cabinet should always be used for the storage of flammable liquids.

This cabinet should be vented, bunded and certified to ensure optimal protection from fire hazards, as well as all the potential health threats from solvent vapours.

Taking the small steps and precautions to ensure safe handling, use and spraying of solvents can go a long way to preventing a significant health and safety incident in the workplace.

About Safety Storage Systems

Since 2001, Safety Storage Systems has served as a leading specialist in the design and manufacture of custom chemical storage solutions which maximise health and safety standards in the workplace.