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Safety Focus: Risks associated with cleaning solvents and thinners in the workplace

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In this three part series, we turn to a recent safety alert issued by WorkCover New South Wales regarding the adverse health effects of volatile solvents and thinners, and provide a summary of products and services that can be utilised to minimise the risk to workers when using these potentially harmful substances in the workplace.

The safety alert follows the recent death of a young worker who was using a volatile solvent to clean the inside of a boat's hull. The worker inhaled solvent vapours, and the solvent was also absorbed through the skin, causing the worker to lose consciousness and die due to cardiac arrhythmias.

The solvent used in this case was similar to paint thinners, containing a combination of volatile ingredients that made it easy to inhale vapours. The solvent was also readily absorbed through the skin. The boat hull had no ventilation to remove the solvent vapours, and the worker was not wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as a respiratory mask or gloves.

WorkCover cautions that all volatile solvents have the potential to cause a person to lose consciousness and to suffer a cardiac arrhythmia and possibly death when used in an enclosed or poorly ventilated area.

A number of chemicals used in solvents been implicated in deaths. These include:
  • toluene xylene
  • hexane
  • methyl ethyl ketone
  • naphthalene; and
  • other petroleum-based solvents.
Other chemicals present in proprietary thinners can greatly increase skin absorption, causing or exacerbating toxic effects.

In addition, the vapours produced by some solvents can create a hazardous atmosphere, which can lead to a fire or explosion if ignition sources are present.

WorkCover New South Wales states that a person controlling a business or undertaking (PCBU) must:
  • manage the risk to health and safety associated when using, handling, generating or storing a hazardous chemical at a workplace, as outlined in clause 351 of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 (WHS Regulation)
  • ensure that information, training and instruction on the risks associated with the use of volatile solvents and thinners is provided to workers, as outlined in clause 39 of the WHS Regulation
  • ensure that a current safety data sheet (SDS) is readily accessible to any worker who uses a hazardous chemical, as outlined in clause 344 of the WHS Regulation
  • ensure that no-one at the workplace is exposed to airborne concentrations of hazardous chemicals that exceed the exposure standard, as outlined in clause 49 of the WHS Regulation
  • provide appropriate PPE, as per the requirements of clauses 44-47 of the WHS Regulation
  • ensure there are no ignition sources present, such as lighting or electrical equipment that is not designed for safe use in hazardous atmospheres, as outlined in clauses 51, 52 and 355 of the WHS Regulation; and
  • follow the requirements outlined in clauses 62-77 of the WHS Regulation if the work is undertaken in a confined space.

In the second part of this series, we will focus specifically on a number of these recommendations, discussing potential solutions offered by companies that list on Ferret.com.au. Click here to read on.

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