Solvents are certainly useful in many workplaces but can also be hazardous to health and may cause fires, explosions, and contamination.
Solvents are common in many workplaces, but that doesn’t mean workers don’t need to be careful. Like other chemicals, solvents can be hazardous if stored or handled improperly.
When employees work with solvents, they have to be trained to follow basic safety procedures to prevent accidents and illness, including these six key work practices:
- Don’t eat, drink, or keep food and beverages in solvent areas. This increases the chances worker could accidentally ingest solvents.
- Don’t wash hands with solvents. Exposing skin to solvents could result in a rash, dryness, or other skin problems. Worse, dangerous solvents to get through the skin into the bloodstream and make workers sick.
- Always wear required PPE to prevent hazardous exposures to solvents.
- Remove PPE carefully when done working to avoid getting solvents on the skin.
- Wash thoroughly after working with solvents—and before eating, drinking, or using the rest room. Employees should also wash before leaving their work area for other parts of the facility. Failing to do so could spread chemical contamination to other parts of the facility and put other employees at risk.
- Store solvents properly to prevent fires, and dispose of waste solvents correctly according to the instructions you’ve been trained to follow.
You can protect employees even more by substituting less hazardous solvents whenever possible to minimize the risk of harmful exposures.
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Some solvents, like acetone, are very flammable. Flammable solvents tend to evaporate at lower temperatures and give off more vapors, which are easily ignited, resulting in fire.
There are many potential sources of ignition for solvents. For example:
- Cigarettes are an obvious concern. Even in outside areas, smoking should not be permitted within 25 feet of a flammable solvent storage or dispensing area.
- Welding and cutting operations could ignite solvents and should therefore never be conducted near solvents. Generally, a 30-foot area around a welding location should be cleared of solvents and other flammable and combustible materials.
- Static electricity can also ignite flammable liquids. Grounding and bonding containers is therefore required when dispensing flammable solvents.
- Sparks from machinery or combustion engines such as grinders or backfiring forklifts could also ignite solvents.
- Heat from hot surfaces or machinery could ignite solvents as well and so could a short circuit in electrical equipment, including electrical panels, conduits, and outlets.
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Remember, too, that solvent fires may not only be hazardous because of the flames, but also because when some solvents burn, they produce a hazardous by-product that can be highly toxic.
Engineering controls such as local exhaust and general area ventilation can help keep solvent vapors at safe levels. Closed processes may be required in some work situations. And when levels can’t be adequately controlled, respiratory protection is required.
Tomorrow, we’ll review safety and health risks associated with solvent vapors—critical information to include in solvent safety training.