Worker safety is a top concern in all industries. However, some manufacturing settings come with a unique set of challenges that few industries face.
For example, the use of the organic solvent, toluene. While this chemical is widely used in numerous processes, it remains highly toxic and is quite dangerous to those who are exposed to it. That is why it is paramount to always follow handling guidelines exactly and all appropriate safety measures.
Keep reading to learn more about health hazards when working with toluene and why it is so important to follow all the recommended safety guidelines.
What is Toluene?
Toluene is a chemical substance commonly used in paints, solvents, and certain types of fuels. In some industries, it is also referred to as methylbenzene. It is colorless and has a pungent, sweet smell.
However, commercial settings often use higher levels of toluene for everything from manufacturing plastic goods to painting vehicles. And that’s where the real danger of exposure is possible.
How Are Workers Exposed?
There are thousands of industries that utilize toluene in varying forms. Many workers are exposed to it in workplaces that use a large number of industrial paints or varnishes. Some glues and sealers also contain the chemical as a primary ingredient.
In some automotive and marine niches, toluene is an active ingredient in gasoline blends as an octane booster. And some plastics, dyes, and other chemical additives also contain toluene. Of course, these are just a few of the large list of ways toluene can be used in a manufacturing or industrial setting.
That said, it is important to note that toluene exposure happens in numerous ways. The most common is through inhalation, which is why the substance is commonly known as a dangerous recreational intoxicant. Other possible exposures include direct skin contact, getting it in the eyes, or digestion.
Toluene as a Recreational Drug
It is important to note that toluene is used as a recreational intoxicant. In some areas, law enforcement and healthcare professionals regularly connect with individuals who use substances like paint thinner, glues, hair dyes, and other substances containing toluene as a way to experience a so-called high effect.
In fact, the problem is so rampant that many local municipalities have banned or restricted sales to only qualified individuals and/or companies.
As an employer, it is important to monitor workers' use of toluene products. If you feel a member of your team is forgoing safety protocols to use these items in a non-approved manner, you have a duty to notify your human resources or local law enforcement immediately.
What Are the Health Hazards Due to Exposure?
Toluene is a very, very dangerous chemical with many health hazards. In the short term, employees exposed to toluene can experience eye and nasal irritation. They may also experience dizziness, exhaustion, confusion, and anxiety. Headaches and insomnia are additionally common.
However, long term exposure to toluene can cause major health issues. Liver and kidney damage are two of the most common, with permanent central nervous system issues as a secondary factor.
Pregnant women are also at a significant risk when it comes to toluene exposure. This chemical can cause significant mental and physical birth defects in unborn children, plus increase the chances of a miscarriage. For these reasons alone, it is not recommended that anyone who is currently pregnant or could conceive should handle toluene in any manner.
Finally, those who work around toluene on a regular basis could exhibit withdrawal symptoms. Since the substance can cause some people to experience a physical and chemical dependence, there is a good chance they’ll undergo certain physical ailments when they’re off from work for extended periods of time or switch jobs entirely.
What Are Safety Tips for Working with This Type of Material?
The primary recommendation is for companies to substitute products that do not contain toluene whenever possible. However, it is generally understood that this isn’t always a possibility.
That said, when working with toluene, it is important for workers to always follow strict handling guidelines. For example, always choose a well-ventilated area when working with this type of material. If possible, choose roller or brush applications and use minimal amounts of the substance. When a spray application is the only option, use a designated paint booth with a properly installed ventilation system. A respirator can be worn for additional protection against inhalation of this substance.
Toluene should also be stored in a well-ventilated area designated for flammable liquids. The location needs to be dry, and the material housed in a clean, covered container. It should also be kept away from oxidizing agents and other incompatible chemicals to prevent accidental mixing.
The good news about toluene is that spills are easy to contain and clean up. Most small incidents only require a soft cloth and a moderate amount of water and detergent. Large spills take longer but can still be cleaned within a similar process.
First Aid Protocols for Toluene Exposure
If an employee is exposed to toluene, it is important to act immediately. If the exposure is directly to the skin, wash the area well with soap and water as soon as possible. For eye contact, flush the eyes with cool water for several minutes.
In the event of respiratory inhalation, have the worker move to a well-ventilated area as soon as possible. Call for immediate medical help to ensure there are no other risks associated with the exposure.
Finally, if toluene is ingested, contact emergency medical personnel immediately. Since this substance can cause significant damage to internal organs, it is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
What Are the Fire Hazards for Toluene?
Let’s start by stressing that toluene is extremely flammable. Even vapors from this chemical can be ignited if left around a high heat source, sparks, or open flames. It can also be ignited at room temperature and spark from static discharge.
This means that putting out a toluene fire presents some level of a challenge. The liquid can easily float on water even while ignited, which means using a normal garden hose to try to put it out can cause the flames to spread more quickly. Thus, carbon dioxide and specific chemical powders rated for toluene should be used.
What Conditions or Materials Should Be Avoided When Working with Toluene?
Toluene is an incredibly flammable chemical compound, meaning there are certain conditions that must be avoided when working with products that contain it.
It is important to also avoid open flames, sparks, and heat when working with toluene. Situations where static electricity is present should also be avoided, especially in the winter or other cold months.
Additionally, storing toluene prevents a bit of a challenge in terms of other compounds. It reacts violently when exposed to nitric acid and there’s an increased risk of explosion when in contact with oxidizing agents like peroxide. However, it is not corrosive to aluminum alloys or carbon steel.
What PPE Should Be Worn When Working with Toluene?
As you probably suspected, there are certain personal protective equipment items necessary for workers who handle products containing toluene. Goggles and a full-face shield are required for all applications, including roller, brush, and spray techniques.
A full set of chemical protective clothing made from appropriately rated fabric is also necessary PPE for working with toluene. This should include gloves, aprons, boots, and any other necessary PPE for covering all exposed skin. All clothing should prevent static discharge where possible.
Finally, a respirator with an APF of 10 to 50 is necessary. This will prevent the worker from inhaling any dangerous fumes, which can cause both immediate harm and long-lasting health effects such as respiratory or neurological problems.
Wrap Up: How to Safely Work with Toluene
Protecting your employees from the harmful effects of toluene is vital. This highly flammable material is found in numerous paints, thinners, and other substances common in the manufacturing, automotive, and industrial sectors. However, taking the right toluene safety precautions and outfitting your team with the best personal protective equipment is important to ensuring their overall health and wellness.
Are your workers regularly exposed to toluene hazards or products that contain toluene? Ensure they’re always protected by keeping the right PPE on hand. For more information or to discover which products are chemically rated, please contact our International Enviroguard team today.