Parts cleaning is a common industrial task involving a range of parts cleaning solvents many of which can be toxic and hazardous. Parts washing chemical solvents often contain highly toxic and harmful ingredients which can lead to a range of serious health hazards and illnesses for workers, and significant legal and financial risks for business.
Some common ingredients in parts cleaning solvent cause severe skin, eye and throat irritation if workers come into direct contact with the chemical or inhale its vapour, while long term exposure can lead to chronic skin problems, nerve damage and certain types of cancers.
Managing these types of chemical risks in the workplace creates a significant workload in managing safety information, safe storage and handling procedures as well as effective monitoring, ventilation and waste disposal systems to minimise risks to workers.
Failure to manage these hazards effectively leads to lost productivity due to sick days, time and money spent mitigating physical harm and the risk of penalties or lawsuits due to Worksafe WHS non-compliance.
Becoming aware of the problem is the first step towards reducing chemical health and safety risks in the workplace.
Toxic chemical solvents
Parts cleaning, whether done manually or with a mechanical parts washer, requires powerful cleaning chemicals to remove grease and staining from metal components. These cleaning solvents can include a range of toxic and hazardous chemicals including Trichloroethylene, Butyl Cellosolve, Bacteria, Caustics, Toluene, Benzene, Acetone, MEK, Kerosene and Diesel.
Below is a summary of some of the major risks and hazards associated with these chemicals.
Trichloroethylene is a highly toxic chemical classified as a carcinogen and mutagen. Exposure through inhalation of vapour can result in immediate dizziness, nausea, headache and confusion, with severe exposure causing unconsciousness. Contact to skin or eyes can cause immediate moderate to severe irritation, redness and swelling.
Long term exposure to this chemical is known to cause kidney cancer and has been linked to liver and lymphatic system cancer. Ongoing exposure may also lead to nerve damage resulting in symptoms such as irritability, depression, fatigue and hearing loss. Trichloroethylene may cause genetic damage to humans based on information from animal studies.
Butyl Cellosolve is commonly used in parts cleaning products, as well as many other industrial and domestic cleaners. It is also known as Butyl Cellusolve, Butoxyethanol, Butyl Glycol and Ethylene Glycol Monobutyl Ether.
This chemical can cause immediate eye, nose, throat and skin irritation, headache, vomiting and blurred vision from physical contact with the product and breathing in its vapour. Prolonged exposure can lead to blood disorders, pulmonary edema, liver and kidney damage and damage to the developing foetus.
Live bacteria and enzymes are sometimes used in parts washing processes to naturally break down soiling and staining via a process called bioremediation. While bacteria can reduce the need for powerful and toxic chemical solvents, it comes with its own associated risks.
Bacteria or enzyme-based cleaning has the potential to propagate into deadly bacterial illnesses including whooping cough, tularaemia, wound infections, e-Coli, typhoid fever, cholera, plague (Yersinia Pestis) and/or meningitis.
Caustics chemicals such as Sodium Hydroxide are extremely corrosive and can be devastating to humans if high concentrations of these substances are splashed onto skin or into eyes, or accidentally swallowed. Accidents involving caustics can lead to serious chemical burns, blindness, internal injuries and even death.
Toluene is a toxic chemical which causes severe irritation to nose and throat if it is inhaled, as well as headache, dizziness, and nausea. If the substance comes into contact with skin and eyes, it causes irritation including pain, redness, and swelling.
Long term exposure to Toluene can lead to skin dermatitis, hearing loss, effects on colour vision and possible harm to the nervous system. At high concentrations,
it may harm the kidneys.
Toluene is classified as a Teratogenicity/ Embryotoxicity substance which means it may damage the unborn child. It has been associated with low birth weight or size, learning disabilities and hearing loss.
Benzene is a toxic chemical which evaporates very quickly creating dangerous vapours. Exposure can result in skin and eye irritations, drowsiness, headaches, dizziness, and nausea.
Long term exposure to benzene can affect normal blood production and can be harmful to the immune system. At high concentrations, benzene exposure can result in death, even after a brief exposure.
Benzene is classified as a Carcinogen and can cause Leukaemia. It has also been linked with birth defects in humans.
Acetone and MEK create a major safety hazard in the workplace. Both Acetone and MEK are highly volatile chemicals with high vapour pressure. They readily release vapour which can travel and collect in low lying areas, creating a dangerous fire hazard. These chemicals are highly flammable in both liquid and vapour states and have a very low flash point which means they can easily ignite – including from a remote ignition source. Acetone is highly flammable at room temperature, even when highly diluted in water.
Kerosene is a highly flammable chemical which has explosive vapours. The product causes irritation to eyes and skin and long term can result in as restlessness, drowsiness, convulsions, and comas.
Kerosene also contains Benzene – see above notes.
Diesel is not an effective washing solution as it has a high oil content. Furthermore, diesel is highly flammable and vapourises quickly. If diesel comes in contact with skin it is quickly and directly absorbed through the skin and can get into the bloodstream. Skin contact can lead to severe redness and chemical burn blisters. If the diesel is not cleaned from the skin quickly it can cause symptoms similar to inhalation exposure (explained below).
Diesel vapours cause irritation to eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. Excessive short term exposure can lead to dizziness, drowsiness, loss of coordination, blood pressure elevation, nausea, and lung damage. Long term exposure to diesel vapours can cause kidney damage and reduce the clotting ability of blood.
Diesel also contains Benzene – see above notes.
Know the Risks – Safety Data Sheet
By law, all workplaces must have a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for every chemical product used on the premises, and it must available to every person who comes in contact with that substance. The SDS, formerly known as the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), lists every toxic and hazardous ingredient and known risks as well as another very important safe handling, storage, and disposal instructions.
It is not enough to simply read the product label. Most products do not include relevant health risks and hazards on the packaging. Only an SDS will provide all the information necessary to adequately understand, evaluate and manage chemical risks.
This article explains in detail how to read an SDS: Understanding an SDS.
Managing chemical risks
Safe chemical substitution is an important way to protect workers from toxic substances and workplace hazards. Effective chemical substitutes exist to replace a wide range of toxic substances, including parts cleaning solvent.
The next article is about the range of actions business can take to protect staff from harmful solvents in the workplace including product substitution.