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Evaluation of Exposure to Organic Solvents

(February 2011) posted on Tue Feb 22, 2011

NIOSH makes a site visit to determine whether harmful conditions are present and to make proposals for employee safety at a small screen-printing company.


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By Lilia Chen, Maureen Niemeier, Scott E. Brueck

To eliminate or minimize workplace hazards, we encourage (in order of preference) the following controls: substitution or elimination of the hazardous agent, engineering controls (for example, local exhaust ventilation, enclosure, dilution ventilation), administrative controls (for example, limiting exposure time, training, work-practice changes, medical surveillance), and personal protective equipment (for example, respiratory protection, gloves, eye protection). In most cases, the best approach is to eliminate hazardous materials and install engineering controls to reduce exposures. Until such controls are in place, or if they are not effective, administrative measures and/or personal protective equipment may be needed.

Inhalation of solvent vapors
Organic solvents may cause minimal to mild irritation of the respiratory system. Irritation usually affects the upper airways, mucous membranes, and eyes, and it generally ends quickly without long-term effects. Solvents can also cause neurologic problems such as fatigue, poor memory, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and mood changes. It is not clear how many of these problems will last after exposure has ended. Symptoms of significant solvent exposure are similar to being drunk (headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, slurred speech, impaired balance, poor concentration, disorientation, and confusion). These symptoms go away quickly after exposure has ended. Death from breathing difficulties can occur at very high levels, but this is very rare.



Skin exposure
Skin exposure is a major route of exposure to organic solvents. Solvents dissolve the protective outer layer of fat in the skin and allow chemicals to be absorbed into the body. Almost all organic solvents cause skin irritation because they remove fat from the skin. Skin disease is the second most common type of occupational disease. NIOSH has a Website on skin exposure, www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/skin.

Eye exposure
Eyes may be exposed to organic solvents or other hazardous chemicals by splashing or by contact with vapors. This can cause chemical burns or damage to eyes. NIOSH has an online topic page that discusses eye safety, www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/eye.


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