Protecting Your Workforce from Volatile Organic Compounds: VOC Mitigation Strategies to Know
Volatile Organic Compounds, also called VOCs, pose a significant health and safety risk to individuals across numerous industries, from agricultural to aeronautical—and that's to say nothing of the hazards posed to the general public via everyday exposure. For this reason, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a variety of regulations regarding VOC mitigation to help keep workers safer.
In this article, we discuss the prevalence and impact of VOCs in industrial settings, introduce some of the most common sources of VOCs, highlight what employers and their workforce can do to mitigate VOC exposure, and review the essential personal protective equipment (PPE) that helps protect against VOCs.
What Are VOCs?
Volatile organic compounds are chemicals, often manmade, found in many common household and commercial products, including paints, refrigerants, and pharmaceuticals. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), VOCs have high vapor pressure (meaning they tend to be volatile or evaporate more easily) and low water solubility (meaning they don't dissolve well in water).
Once inside a product, these chemicals can evaporate or "off-gas" into the air, transforming from a liquid or solid state into gas or particulate matter. This "off-gassing" phenomenon—which can happen while products are being used as well as while they are simply sitting around in storage—serves as the primary means of human exposure to VOCs.
VOCs are considered a primary driver of indoor air pollution and are found in concentrations of up to 10 times higher than in outdoor air, according to the EPA. Thousands of volatile organic compounds are known to exist. The EPA lists several common ones, including:
- Trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent
- Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE), a fuel oxygenate
- Chloroform, a by-product produced by chlorination in water treatment
Sources of VOCs
Exposure to certain VOCs may be more common in specific industries. For example, VOCs like formaldehyde, methylene chloride, butane, and benzene are often found within the manufacturing and construction industries because of products or processes like paints, adhesives, and printing or welding.
Additional VOCs, such as 1,3-butadiene, ethylene glycol, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, and xylene, can come from a wide range of other sources, including:
- Varnishes, upholstery, caulks, insulating foam, PVC, and other building or supply chain materials
- Carpets, vinyl flooring, composite wood, and specialized coating materials
- Fuel, oil, and gasoline
- Cosmetics and personal care products
- Air fresheners, candles, and cleaning products
- Office and home supplies, including permanent markers, correction fluids, and carbon copy paper
- Activities including smoking, dry cleaning, photocopying, cooking, woodburning, and even wine production
VOC Safety Concerns: What Makes VOCs So Dangerous?
Like most compounds or substances, VOCs pose potential health risks based on an individual's degree of exposure and length of exposure—with unmitigated occupational exposure posing a particularly significant risk.
In acute or short-term exposure (hours to days), high VOC exposure may lead to signs and symptoms such as dizziness, nausea and vomiting, headaches, fatigue, epistaxis (nosebleed), incoordination, and eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation. Long-term exposure to VOCs has been linked to a wide range of potential health problems, including:
- Liver damage
- Kidney damage
- Central nervous system damage
- Certain types of cancer
- Disruption to the endocrine system (involved in hormone production)
- Fetal development problems, including birth defects, neurocognitive impairments, and childhood asthma
Researchers are still learning more about the specific health hazards posed by unique VOCs. It is known that VOCs can remain airborne for several days.
As mentioned, VOCs also come from very common routes of exposure, such as gasoline and diesel emissions, lawn mowing and woodburning operations, and industrial painting and coating projects. Because of their ubiquitous and persistent nature, volatile organic compounds are recognized as a factor of concern for human health.
What Governing Bodies Regulate VOCs?
Given the known and unknown potential human health risks of VOCs—and given the fact that individuals within various industries may have higher levels of exposure compared to the public—several governing bodies have enacted protocols and legislation to regulate volatile organic compounds.
To begin, OSHA has outlined the permissible exposure level (PEL) of a variety of at least 500 airborne contaminants, including VOCs.
PEL refers to the maximum concentration of an airborne contaminant to which an unprotected worker may be exposed during typical work duties; it is up to the employer to ensure that exposure limits are not exceeded, which can be achieved through measures such as the use of direct reading gas detectors. As one example, the PEL for the common VOC formaldehyde is 0.75 parts per million (ppm).
A full list of the contaminants and their PEL, as determined by OSHA, can be found in OSHA's 29 CFR 1910.1000 Table Z-1.
Another example of regulations relating to VOC safety includes the EPA's regulation 40 CFR 59. This federal regulation, "National Volatile Organic Compound Emission Standards for Consumer and Commercial Products," oversees manufacturers and importers of certain products and seeks to ensure that such parties remain in compliance with VOC emission standards.
Products referred to in this regulation—which must not exceed the EPA's set VOC content limit, as determined by provisional equations provided in the document—include wood furniture coatings, aerospace coatings, printing materials, shipbuilding and repair coatings, plastic parts coatings, and miscellaneous industrial adhesives.
How to Reduce VOCs: Control Measures and Mitigation Strategies
Adhering to regulatory standards for VOC emissions is both required by law and ethically sound. There are also additional strategies employers and industry stakeholders can use to protect their workforce. These strategies include the following:
- Support adequate indoor ventilation using tools such as HEPA filters and indoor air quality (IAQ) monitors.
- Choose raw materials that contain fewer VOCs, such as water-based paints or paints containing plant-based dyes.
- Choose cleaning solutions known to contain low-VOC alternatives.
- Ensure workers have access to high quality personal protective equipment (PPE), including fit-tested respirators and coveralls that will prevent inhalation, ingestion, and skin contact (disposable PPE products are especially useful in higher-risk industries, since workers can minimize the amount of cross-contamination that may occur and avoid accidentally exposing their loved ones to volatile compounds).
Hundreds of volatile organic compounds are known to exist, and both the medical and scientific communities are still learning about their impact on the environment and human health. To reduce VOC emissions and improve safety across a broad range of industries, a variety of regulations have been enacted by entities including OSHA and the EPA. It is the responsibility of the employer to ensure their business remains in compliance with these regulations.