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Protecting employee health: 5 ways to reduce the risk of solvents in the workplace

Solvents stored in large blue buckets in a workplace.

From solvent-based paints and glues to nail polish remover, solvents are fairly common in our lives. At work, solvents are often used as industrial cleaners, degreasers, or paint thinners. Those who work with solvents may become used to their strong smells, but may not have thought about the negative health effects solvents can have on their bodies.

“Short-term exposure to select solvents affects your nervous system, and at higher concentrations,  potential symptoms include headache, nausea, dizziness, and drowsiness. Some of these effects are similar to the effects of alcohol consumption,” says Warren Clements WSPS Specialized Consultant (Occupational Hygiene). Some people, if exposed at higher concentrations, could feel as if they are working impaired. Acute effects usually subside when exposure stops. But, depending on the solvent, there is a risk of long-term effects—such as cognitive deficits, kidney and liver damage, and some cancers—when workers are exposed regularly over long periods of time. “Solvents are used every day in industrial workplaces, so it’s important to be aware of them and limit exposure as much as possible,” he says.

When it comes to solvents, the most common exposure for workers is either through inhalation or absorption. “As soon as you open a can of paint or degreaser, you can smell it. You are breathing in those vapours,” says Warren. “People are usually aware of this type of exposure and control it with work practices, local exhaust ventilation, and possibly by using respirators.”

Warren explains that ventilation and respirators may limit what you breathe in, but they do not control absorption. When you use your hand to dip a rag into a solvent and then use that rag to clean a piece of equipment, the skin on your hand absorbs the liquid. If you do this multiple times a day, your exposure could be higher than you would expect. “Even in a well-ventilated room,” Warren points out. “Workers have to be aware that absorbing a solvent through your skin can defat the skin, which may cause dryness and cracking.”

5 tips to reduce the risk when working with solvents

If you can eliminate the use of solvents in your work, do it. But, since that might not be practical in some cases, it’s best to focus on limiting exposure. Warren offers these tips to reduce the risk when working with solvents.

  1. Check the Safety Data Sheet (SDS). All chemicals that are used in the workplace, including solvents, should have an SDS available. Start by reviewing the SDS for the specific solvent you are working with. It will outline recommendations for safe use and personal protective equipment (e.g., type of gloves or respirator filter required).

  2. Keep containers closed as much as possible. Warren recommends asking your safety supplier about flip lids that can be purchased for solvent containers. “These flip lids can replace the original lid and make it much easier to quickly flip open when needed and then close up again, rather than leaving a container open for hours at a time,” he says.

  3. Use gloves. “If you are dipping a tool, piece of equipment, or a cloth in a solvent, protect your skin with gloves,” he Waren emphasizes. Speak with your safety supplier to ensure you purchase the type of gloves that will offer the best protection for the chemical you are using.

  4. Ensure the work area is properly ventilated. If the nature of your work means that your workers are exposed to solvents, in addition to requiring them to wear gloves, ensure that the area is properly ventilated to reduce or dilute the vapours.

  5. Educate your employees. The more they know about the health effects of solvent exposure, the more likely they will be to follow safe handling procedures. 

How WSPS can help


Connect with a WSPS occupational hygienist for help with developing procedures and controls to work with chemicals safely.



The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.