To say that job sites are full of potential safety hazards would be an understatement. However, in addition to the nature of heavy equipment, tool usage, and other common hazard potential on the site, it's important to not overlook something that may seem less obvious. Gases, for instance, can impact workers via inhalation and direct contact. Formaldehyde is one such substance that needs to be carefully considered on the worksite. A colorless gas with a strong, distinct odor, exposure can lead to a variety of short- and long-term health effects, some of which can be fatal.

In this post, we'll take a closer look at what you need to know about this substance, its common applications, the OSHA Formaldehyde Standard, exposure symptoms, safety precautions, and more. Discover everything you need to know about formaldehyde and how to stay safe when handling or working around the substance:

Formaldehyde: What You Need to Know

As noted, formaldehyde is a colorless, yet very strong-smelling gas that is used in a variety of construction-related applications. Some applications include mixing resins, textile finishes, and the creation of other chemicals. It's also commonly used as a disinfectant, a fertilizer, or fungicide. Though not a construction-related application, it's perhaps most widely used by morgues for embalming.

Also known as Methyl Aldehyde, Methylene Oxide, and formalin, formaldehyde can have dire consequences if it's not handled properly. It's a highly toxic substance that's corrosive, combustible, and a serious cancer hazard. Additionally, exposure has been linked to genetic defects. Noting all of this, it's extremely important to handle this substance according to its safety data sheet. Otherwise, you could be subjected to short-term and long-term health effects, some of which may be lethal.

Common Uses of Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is typically found in water-based solutions; however, it is also present in a chemical state in many building materials such as plywood, particleboard, glues, coatings, and other chemicals. It's also used in fungicides, germicides, and disinfectants.

Formaldehyde Hazards and Safety Precautions

Formaldehyde can present a very serious health and safety risk. It's classified as a carcinogen, is corrosive, and combustible. Hence, improper handling of the material could put an entire job site at risk due to its flammability. This section takes a closer look at the risks and precautions to take when handling formaldehyde.

Health Hazards

  • Eyes: Formaldehyde can irritate the eyes and even cause possible eye damage due to its corrosive nature.
  • Skin: The substance can also significantly irritate the skin. Skin contact has the potential to lead to burns and long-term skin allergies that may include itching and rashes.
  • Respiratory system: It's believed that there are no safe exposure limits to formaldehyde and being that the substance is often in the gaseous state, inhalation is a very serious threat. Exposure can irritate the lungs and lead to long-term health effects that may include cancer. It may also lead to asthma-like conditions, shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, bronchitis and pulmonary edema, the latter of which is a medical emergency described by fluid buildup in the lungs. Aside from impacting the lungs, exposure to formaldehyde can also irritate the nose and mouth.
  • Reproductive hazard: Exposure to formaldehyde can be especially hazardous to pregnant women, potentially resulting in birth defects (teratogen) and stunting the development of the developing baby.

What to do if You're Exposed

Certainly, even the safest job sites may still have mishaps where workers are exposed to formaldehyde. Here's a look at the first aid you want to follow on-site to minimize the effects of exposure:

  • Eye contact: Immediately flush the eyes at an eyewash station or similar wash station on site. Thoroughly flush the eyes for at least 30 seconds, while lifting the eyelids to ensure thorough washing. Following eye washing, seek immediate medical attention.
  • Skin contact: Immediately remove any clothing. Then, wash and scrub the skin thoroughly with soap and water. After you're finished, seek immediate medical attention.
  • Inhalation: Quickly move the individual to an area away from the area of exposure to a ventilated area, preferably outdoors. If breathing is severely impacted, call for an ambulance and begin CPR while you wait. Medical professionals suggest monitoring any exposed individuals for up to 48 hours following inhalation, as the threat of pulmonary edema is often delayed.

Safety Precautions

In addition to ensuring that your workers are wearing the appropriate PPE, covered next, there are various safety precautions to ensure that you're handling formaldehyde with the utmost care and not jeopardizing the health of any workers on site. Some of these safety precautions include:

  • Proper labeling of containers and materials that include the formaldehyde substance.
  • Using chemicals that are less toxic than formaldehyde (if applicable).
  • Properly enclosing formaldehyde chemicals.
  • Ensuring appropriate ventilation and exhaust measures are in place to limit, decrease, or eliminate exposure.
  • Monitor airborne chemical concentration levels to ensure levels do not exceed the recommended exposure limit or PEL.
  • Empower workers with the knowledge of formaldehyde exposure symptoms and what to do if they've been exposed.
  • Ensure eyewash stations and emergency showers are on site for worker use in the event of exposure.
  • Refraining from eating, smoking, and drinking in areas where formaldehyde is being handled or stored.
  • Wash hands thoroughly before eating, smoking drinking, using the restroom, or applying cosmetics.
  • Ensure availability of clean, disposable PPE.
  • Make sure workers know how to properly discard potentially contaminated/exposed PPE following work. Contaminated PPE should not be taken home.
  • Always wash at the end of a work shift
  • Store the substance in an area that is dry and well ventilated.

PPE and Formaldehyde: What You Need to Know

Though OSHA has established a Formaldehyde Standard, it's worth reiterating that many scientists and medical experts believe that there is no true safe exposure limit when handling or working around the substance. Noting this, it's extremely critical to be diligent with PPE. Remember, exposure to formaldehyde is something that can last for months — perhaps even years. Arguably the best thing that can be done to keep workers safe is to ensure they are wearing the right PPE and that they're wearing this PPE properly. From respirators to safety glasses, here is a look at the PPE that workers should be wearing when in proximity to formaldehyde:

  • Respirators: Not wearing a respirator or an improper respirator fit can have dire health consequences when in the presence of formaldehyde. Any worker wearing a respirator should be medically able to do so and have the device properly fit tested to ensure proper protection. If exposure is more than 0.016 ppm, a National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) approved supplied-air respirator with a full facepiece in positive-pressure mode should be worn. In situations with the potential for an even higher level of exposure, an NIOSH-approved self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) should be worn.
  • Eye Protection: When working with fumes, gases, or vapors it is advised to wear non-vented, impact-resistant goggles. Wearing goggles with a full-face shield is another recommended option for eye protection. Note: Contact lenses should not be worn when working with formaldehyde.
  • Skin Protection: Preventing formaldehyde from skin contact is crucial to avoid burns or long-term skin allergies. Clean, disposable body suits should be available each day and worn before entering the job site. Workers should also be trained on how to properly remove these body suits when exiting the site.
  • Gloves: Gloves must be made from material that cannot be permeated or degraded by formaldehyde. Some such materials include gloves made from the following rubbers: butyl, nitrile, neoprene, and Viton™.

Understanding the OSHA Formaldehyde Standard

The OSHA Formaldehyde Standard (29 CFR 1910.1048) is designed to protect workers from formaldehyde exposure and ensure that job sites are within acceptable exposure limits. Details of the standard include:

  • The permissible exposure limit, or PEL, is 0.75 parts formaldehyde per million parts of air. This is based on an 8-hour time-weighted average.
  • A second PEL has been set for a short-term exposure limit. This STEL is a maximum exposure of 2 ppm permissible during a 15-minute span.
  • The action level is 0.5 ppm calculated as an 8-hour time-weighted average. This action level serves as a trigger for increased industrial hygiene and monitoring of workers.

Work sites are full of health and safety hazards, but those that involve formaldehyde require continued diligence and monitoring. It's crucial that your workers are trained on how to stay safe around the substance and what to do if they've been exposed due to its volatility, flammability, toxicity, corrosivity, and carcinogenic properties. Preventative measures like proper training, PPE, and following safety procedures are critical to keeping your workers safe from a substance that has destructive short- and long-term health effects and can pose immediate danger.